Summertime, and the living is academic

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Kitchen Table Talk

The earliest start date in the history of Knox County Schools – which was Aug. 5 for students – has ignited the annual back-to-school-too-early cry of many and brought bouts of nostalgia to grandparents.

It’s true that grandparents of most of the children in elementary and high school today rarely started the new school year in August, but many of the parents of these same children are familiar with a mid-August start. The shift toward starting earlier began in the mid-1990s in Tennessee.

The reasons are many – from changing weather patterns that mess with the required 180 days of educational instruction to the desire by teachers and superintendents to finish the grading period in December rather testing after a week-plus of winter break. Dissenters argue that the days off in the fall, a full week in October this year, should be abandoned for a later school start.

Getting in 180 days is the prime motivator, a number required by the state. That number varies a bit in the U.S., with Colorado being the lowest with 160. Some states opt for longer school days, getting more hours in each day to add up to the required number without adding calendar days.

The U.S. ranks alongside most European countries in required instructional days, with most of them requiring 185 days. Japan, however, requires 210 days of educational instruction. France requires only 144 days.

The history of a summer break for U.S. children is rooted in agriculture.  In the U.S., parents needed their children home during the summer to work the fields that provided their livelihood. That growing season also accounts for part of the reason why districts and states set their own school calendars.

My mother would tell us of her high school days in West Tennessee when school would break for a full month beginning in mid-September because the kids were needed in the fields to bring the cotton in. That tradition continued long after cotton fields became scarce in Henderson County but was a thing of the past by the time I got to Lexington High School in 1968.

The annual school calendar for Knox County is actually a bit fluid, depending on how the weeks fall. Educators like to start the winter break on a Monday because it cuts down on absenteeism. Winter holidays this year, with Christmas nestled firmly in the middle of the week, begin on Dec. 23 with the first day back at school on Jan. 6

Next year, the first day of class is Aug. 10, and winter break begins Dec. 21.

For parents, the philosophical struggle is often between wanting the lazy days of summer they remember for their children to economics. Two-income families with younger children are often ready for a break from day-care and summer camp costs that eat into paychecks over the summer.

Many children are ready for school to begin again and are seldom as bothered by the early August start as the adults. They are eager to get back to the friends they have missed over the summer and ready to start a new adventure.

One thing for sure, with the heat an early-August start brings, the dreaded “first-day-of-school” fall outfit that my mother would so carefully buy and force me to wear is a thing of the past. All that is needed these days is a new backpack, lunchbox and tennis shoes.

Oh, and the chalkboard that announces the new year and grade for the Facebook post.

Happy new school year, kids! Your next holiday is only 20 days away (Aug. 27 in-service), then just a few more days, and you’re off for Labor Day.


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