The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

August 30, 2008

The case for a longer school year


Ah, summer vacation.

Trips to the pool and the park and the lake, leisurely dinners and late bedtimes, barbecues and ice cream cones, camping trips, amusement park rides and days at the beach.

At the end of June, it stretches ahead like an endless ray of sunshine. No more pencils, no more books. No more lunches to make, no buses to catch, no after-school-activity drop-offs and pick-ups. Just a glorious, sun- and fun-filled break from the routine.

But by mid-August, the 10-week rollercoaster ride that is summer vacation starts to careen out of control. The summer pleasures that once seemed so exciting begin to get old. My kids are sick of camping and bored with the pool, cranky from too many late nights and sluggish from too many lazy mornings, stir-crazy and on each other's last nerve.

Gradually, thoughts turn to new jeans and shiny folders and who's in which class. And all of a sudden, the rollercoaster is back on track and climbing toward an exciting new destination: the first day of school.

As we check off the school supplies, clean out the closets and ease into earlier bedtimes, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief _ and wondering whether 10 weeks of summer vacation is too long.

After all, the days of kids spending the summer harvesting crops are gone, and many schools have already changed with the times. According to the National Association for Year-Round Education, about 3,000 schools across the country, including 21 in New York, have a "year-round calendar."

For most, this does not mean more days in session, but rather, the 180 days are redistributed to create a more-balanced schedule, such as four nine-week terms broken up by three-week vacations, with five weeks off in the summer.

Around here, schools already have one-week breaks in December, February and April; why not extend one of these to two weeks and cut four or five weeks off the summer vacation, for a 195- or 200-day school year?

Let me be clear. I have tremendous respect for teachers. They have an increasingly complex, important job, and they should be fairly compensated for it. I'm sure they need time to recharge and regroup before each new school year. But wouldn't five or six weeks be sufficient?

A shorter summer break would help students to learn more efficiently. Teachers wouldn't have to waste the month of September getting kids back into the routine, and kids would not only learn more, they'd have an easier time making the transition from vacation to school mode.

The school year is longer in other developed countries (In Japan, students spend 60 more days in school than American students), and, if we want our students to compete in the global economy, we should examine whether there's a correlation between time spent in school and performance on international educational assessment tests.

Critics will argue that kids need time to just be kids; that a lot of valuable, unstructured learning happens in the summer; that summers are for family time. But unless you're an educator, a stay-at-home mom or self-employed, you don't have the luxury of an entire summer off to romp in the back yard with your kids.

Summer vacation can be a great thing, in theory: a chance for kids to explore, imagine and create, outside the confines of school. Not all kids are couch potatoes in the summer; many keep up their skills or learn new things, whether it's through a reading program at the local library, soccer camp, swimming lessons, art class or just exploring the outdoors.

But others do not pick up a book or use their math skills all summer.

Then there are the practical issues. Besides the cost of compensating teachers for the extra time, there are expenses, such as air conditioning and fuel, related to keeping buildings open and buses running longer.

Nobody wants higher property taxes, but there's a cost to kids being out of school, too. Whether it's day care, a baby-sitter, summer camp or a patchwork of all three, most parents are spending money on summer care.

The biggest obstacle to a longer school year is the fact that summer vacation is so deeply embedded in American culture. We're no longer an agrarian-centered society, but our economy and our lifestyle still revolve around summer vacation.

Teens look forward to summer jobs, families look forward to more time together, and the tourism industry depends on its summer revenue. Then there's the retail sector, which has hyped the back-to-school shopping season into a monthlong frenzy of sales and specials.

Nevertheless, more school districts should consider changing with the times. In today's world, students, parents and educators would all be better served by a longer school year.

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Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.