By MARK MURDOCK
Many people remember a traditional summer vacation when they think back to their time in school.
The school year would end in June, and kids would have the whole summer to have fun, work at part-time jobs and enjoy outings and vacations with their families.
In Indiana, state requirements have put the squeeze on schools, however. Schools now must have 180 days of instruction, and must also conduct testing in the spring with the results carrying heavy ramifications.
Some school systems have changed their calendars to start the school year much earlier. Many begin in the first few days of August; some even start in the last few days of July. It helps them meet the state requirements while trying to serve their students as best they can.
Simply put, the schools are doing what works best for them.
That freedom would go away if a bill authored by Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, makes it through the Legislature this year. The bill would mandate that no school begin classes before the third Monday in August, which would have been Aug. 21 this year.
All schools in the four-county area of northeast Indiana started the 2017-18 year before the date the bill proposes. The closest to that date were Angola and Fremont, which began Aug. 16. Three DeKalb County Schools got the earliest jump, with DeKalb Central, DeKalb Eastern and Garrett-Keyser-Butler all starting classes in the first three days of the month.
DeKalb Central and DeKalb Eastern schools already have made calendars for the next school year. Eastside kept the same starting date of Aug. 2, while DeKalb moved its beginning back about a week to Aug. 9.
It goes by so fast
Leising authored a similar bill in the last legislative session, and it died in a tie vote. That measure would have pushed the mandatory starting date back to the fourth Monday in August.
Leising’s district is home to Holiday World, a tourist resort that depends heavily on young, part-time workers. Earlier school starting times have forced the resort to close earlier and lose revenue. Less tax revenue goes to the state.
The Auburn Community Pool, which closed after last season, also was hurt by falling revenues. Kids who spent August swimming or working as lifeguards in the past are now in school.
The pool needs a complete makeover at a cost of around $5 million, so the school issue isn’t to blame for its permanent closing. With the swim season much shorter, however, putting taxpayer funds into the pool would be a questionable investment.
Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, has authored bills calling for a later school start in past years. He expects to be a co-author of Leising’s bill this year.
“I still like a longer summer,” Kruse said. “Summer is healthy for kids, and August is equal to the best month for outdoor activities.”
He said activities such as swimming, boating, fishing and camping are good for kids and families. With an earlier school start “you do away with 3-4 weeks of all those summer activities,” he added
Kruse also believes summer jobs benefit young people, and starting school sooner limits those opportunities.
“Increasingly, it is being brought out now that summer jobs for kids is another big thing,” Kruse said. “Having summer jobs for teenagers is very good for their development.”
He also noted the importance of summer jobs at lake businesses in the region.
The Indiana State Fair in the first two weeks of August has seen attendance decline. Some don’t like to see kids deprived of that experience.
A common goal among administrators in planning the school year is finishing the first semester before Christmas vacation.
Schools try to keep their starting dates early enough to have high school students complete final exams before breaking for the holiday. Otherwise, they come back after the vacation to only a few days of school and then the finals.
“If there is a later start to the school year, final exams would have to be delayed until after winter break, which would not be a fair assessment for the students involved,” said Steve Teders, superintendent for DeKalb Central schools. “Although the number of days are not even, we try to keep the two semesters balanced.”
Fremont has the same idea despite starting two weeks later than DeKalb.
“We like where we start now,” Superintendent William Stitt said. “It allows us to finish the first semester before Christmas break. That’s a good split for us. We finish the high school exams before vacation. We want our kids during the break to be kids and spend time with their families and not worry about school.”
DeKalb Central and DeKalb Eastern administrators say shorter breaks throughout the school year keep students engaged while not overtaxing them.
“The breaks are shorter. Before, you had a summer break of 2 ½ months, and I think kids forget,” said Jeff Stephens, superintendent of DeKalb Eastern Schools. “It gives parents the opportunity of looking at different times during the year when they can get away, and not having to try to fit everything into the summer.”
Stephens said a later school start would push the end of school into June and move summer school into July. He said a third of DeKalb Eastern students attended summer classes this year.
That arrangement would make it tough for students in fall sports, with practice starting in early August.
“It would be a disservice to fall athletes,” Stevens said. “They would have virtually no summer.”
Teders feels the balanced calendar is easier on students and staff.
“Our current calendar is described as a modified balance calendar, based on the premise that students work hard, take a break, work hard, take a break, and so on until the school year concludes. … Our students and staff work very hard during academic periods throughout the year, and the breaks serve as an opportunity to rejuvenate and refocus.”
Central Noble schools began Aug. 11 this year. Superintendent Troy Gaff said that date helps the school system prepare for the testing in the spring.
“We start early, but not as early as some of the other schools do,” Gaff said. “The challenges we face are getting everything covered that we need to get covered before the spring testing.
“If they would pass this legislation, I think they would also have to pass legislation on when we assess.”
Stephens said the balanced schedule helped his district resolve insurance issues.
“We went to a balanced schedule because of (the Affordable Care Act),” Stephens said. It enabled the district to reduce the average work weeks of some 50 employees. Otherwise, the school district would have had to offer them health insurance, and for budget reasons, would have had to cut hours or eliminate positions, Stephens said.
He said the calendar change saves the school district around $200,000 per year.
Stitt pointed out that the school starting date would affect tourism and part-time workers “at either end. You either go later into June or (earlier in August).”
Teders said the balanced schedule helps to align school calendars with organizations that serve several school districts. The Northeast Indiana Special Education Cooperative provides support for students with disabilities, and Impact Institute gives vocational opportunities.
“It is important to align our calendars, since we have students attending programs outside our district and also have students from other districts attending DeKalb Central for programming,” Teders said. “It is already difficult to align calendars, and I believe it will be even more so if the state takes control.”
One size fits all?
Administrators are wondering if it’s best to take control of school calendars out of the hands of the local school districts.
“What works at Fremont might not work down south,” Stitt said.
“At DeKalb Central, we don’t believe a state-legislated calendar is a good idea or a good use of time for state legislators,” Teders said. “Local communities should keep the authority to create a school calendar that works best for the students and families who reside within their districts.”
Others question the reasoning behind the push for a later start.
“I’ve talked to state senators who are pretty adamant about it,” Stephens said. “I ask them why, and they tell me marinas and an amusement park in southern Indiana are losing money. We don’t have any marinas around here, and I’m not sure we have anyone who goes to that park.
“I don’t know how valid that answer is, but that’s the answer I’m getting.”
Local schools will have to comply if the bill passes.
“All of our buildings are air-conditioned, so our students will be comfortable,” Stitt said. “We’ll have an environment conducive to learning. Of course, we’ll do whatever the state tells us to do.”