The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at maya@voiceofsandiego.org.

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At the last San Diego Unified school board meeting in July, one of the many contentious matters discussed in the roughly five-hour meeting was the decision over when the first day of school should be.

The district’s Calendar Committee, a group of stakeholders like teachers and parents, after months of research, surveys and deliberation, had voted 14-12 to change the 2018-2019 school year to begin after Labor Day.

The Learning CurveSuperintendent Cindy Marten recommended that school begin the week before Labor Day, splitting from the committee.

“I did not take this decision lightly,” Marten said. She said the district had one of the latest start dates in San Diego County and the past couple of years it had been starting before Labor Day, so she wanted to stay consistent.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The Calendar Committee has gone through some changes over the past couple of years, because parents felt it had been overrepresented by district staff. At the culmination of the committee’s vote for the 2018-2019 school year, parents and other committee members felt better about the process. Now they feel slighted once again by Marten’s departure from their recommendation.

“My statement tonight is more about the process than the actual start date,” said Heather Worms, a parent on the committee as she implored the board to vote against the superintendent’s recommendation.

The board voted 3-2 to support the superintendent.

I was surprised at the divisiveness over school start dates.

“It’s just a week difference,” I thought, puzzled.

Then again, I do not have children in school nor have I been covering schools for very long.

It turns out this has been a fascinating debate happening across the country for decades. Over time, it has involved everything from farming to air conditioning to athletics to the tourism industry. And while education experts seem to agree that starting school earlier is better not only for low-income families, but can also help all secondary students prep for standardized tests or AP exams, it is literally against the law to start school before Labor Day in some states.

School calendars used to vary widely across the country and unified in the past century into the nine- to 10-month calendar we’re used to today, according to a 2012 article in the Journal of Inquiry and Action in Education. The paper argues facilities issues and agrarian needs largely shaped the school calendar –kids in rural parts of the country had farming obligations for part of the year, and school buildings didn’t used to have things like air conditioning during summer heat.

The pre- or post-Labor Day contention actually dates as far back as the ‘80s. A wave of states had outlawed schools from opening before September under pressure from the tourism industry, the New York Times reported in 1986.

The debate was reignited last year after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order requiring public schools to open after Labor Day and end by June 15. Hogan supported his action with claims from a 2013 Maryland Bureau of Revenue Estimates report that said having students start after Labor Day would mean $7.7 million in additional state tax revenue and $74.3 million in additional economic activity.

At the time other states, like Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, already had laws on the books prohibiting earlier school start dates and bills proposing similar laws were popping up in Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Texas, Ohio and Delaware, though not all of them were successful.

Some of the issues brought up by speakers and board members at July’s San Diego Unified board meeting included better coordination between athletics – which tend to start in August – and the academic calendar, more time to prep students for standardized tests and AP exams and start times better aligning with community colleges for students who have the opportunity to take community college courses while in high school.

There have been studies that show that, particularly for kids from lower-income families, extended summers out of school can be detrimental. Kids whose families can’t afford to send them to camp or other summer-enriching activities, may fall behind if they spend a month or two out of school. Research from John Hopkins found that students lose an average of two months’ worth of what they learned the previous year each summer. RAND Corporation found that students’ skills and knowledge deteriorates over the summer, with low-income students facing the largest losses, thus perpetuating and widening the achievement gap.

For students reliant on school meals, long summer vacations can also mean food insecurity. Having younger students in public school can also save working parents child-care costs.

For kids who can go to camps or other summer programs, a shortened summer would mean fewer of those opportunities. It could also impact things like family vacations.

Other schools in California start far earlier than San Diego Unified, but their schedule changes haven’t really addressed the “learning loss” from summer vacation, according to EdSource. That is because although they’ve shortened summer, they’ve added longer vacations during other parts of the year, so kids are still out of school for the same number of days – they’re just not concentrated in the summer.

Local Ed News

• Data obtained by VOSD’s Mario Koran shows the lowest-performing students in the class of 2016 transferred out of San Diego Unified.

“That bolsters the case that charter schools acted as an escape hatch for San Diego Unified students, taking in some of the school district’s lowest-performing high school students and helping the district land a 91 percent graduation rate in 2016 – the highest on record,” Koran wrote.

District officials also told Koran that struggling students had indeed been pushed to charter schools – a reversal from the district’s stance after Koran’s previous reporting on how the district achieved its unprecedented graduation rate.

• VOSD’s Ashly McGlone recounts how former Poway Unified superintendent John Collins went from the second highest-paid public school superintendent in the state, running a district with high-achieving students, to facing multiple felony charges.

• KPBS aired a segment on how parents should talk to their kids about violence and racism after the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va.

• The San Diego County Board of Education voted to uphold a decision to revoke the charter of Beacon Classical Academy National City due to “curriculum problems, poor academic achievement, safety concern and questionable audits.” (Union-Tribune)

• A computer glitch caused San Diego Unified to accidentally notify parents who didn’t qualify for free and reduced lunch that their kid could get free and reduced lunch. (NBC7)

• Chula Vista Elementary School District has been trying to address childhood obesity among its students for years. But a decision to overturn a ban on chocolate milk has many fearing that the district’s progress could be undone. (KPBS)

Ed News Roundup

• Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says school vouchers are part of tax reform discussions. You can also read a full transcript of the AP’s interview with DeVos here.

• Both candidates for California superintendent of schools say the state’s teacher shortage will be their top issue. (EdSource)

• Everyone seems to agree that social and emotional skills are important for schools to teach, but no one can agree on what those skills entail. (NPR)

• KQED takes a look at schools that forego grades.

• A poll has found public support for charter schools has plummeted – and it may have something to do with the president. (EdWeek)

• New reports from New America encourage us to rethink how we use data to determine how English-learners are faring.

• CalMatters tackles lead in drinking water in California schools.

• The national’s teaching force is still predominantly white and female, according to new federal data. Charter school teachers look significantly different than those in traditional public schools. (EdWeek)

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads, The Learning Curve

    Written by Maya Srikrishnan

    Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She writes about K-12 education with a focus on equity. She can be reached at maya.srikrishnan@voiceofsandiego.org.

    4 comments
    Justin Schiffer
    Justin Schiffer

    I think the crux of the article is in the last paragraph. Starting a week or two weeks earlier doesnt solve the issue of the summer slide, so long as students are just getting out in June a week or two weeks earlier. The problem is the number of days kids have off in the summer. The only real solution to that problem is to increase the number of instructional days, and consequently of course, that means paying teachers more. That scenario seems rather unlikely to me.

    EducatedMom
    EducatedMom subscribermember

    This article sidesteps what was the main issue concerning the calendar decision.  As pointed out by Heather Worms, it wasn't about what the district selected as a start date; it was about how the the majority of the Board and the Superintendent disrespected the process to recommend an instructional start date based on analysis of data, a significant time spent by committee members, and the thousands of stakeholders who weighed in. After much fanfare to establish a more balanced committee and a process, the Superintendent Martin ignored the committee's recommendation and gave an entirely different recommendation without even consulting with the calendar committee members (until after the fact, if at all).

    This paternalistic (maternalistic?) decision-making is universal in the district, with folks higher up the chain making all the decisions ignoring input from the stakeholders closest to the issue. Look no further than the budget cut decisions, but it also extends to the LCAP (Local Control and Accountability Plan).

    To clarify the confusion expressed below, the number of instructional days is the same either way.  The summer break is the same length for students on the traditional calendar, but for those students on the year-round calendar, starting earlier in the year means that their summer break is shorter (whereas a different break--historically their spring break--becomes longer).  SDUSD reversed its commitment to transition all year-round schools to a traditional calendar because of their failure to properly budget the expense.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    No.  the break for Thanksgiving is now longer, the break for Christmas is now longer, the break for Easter/Spring is now longer, and many districts now have a "ski" week.  Plus more in staff or half days.

    So the same number of instruction days, but spread out over a longer number of weeks/months.


    John Kennett
    John Kennett subscriber

    Maybe I am wrong but you may be missing a point. Starting before Labor day shortens the summer break ....once. The schools are still in session the same number of days. If you start the year early you end the year early. No???