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updated: 8/14/2012 1:17 PM

Why are suburban schools starting so early?

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  • Rose Geijer escorts Titilayo Ewulo and Ariana Woodfork to their first day of kindergarten Monday at Perry School in Carpentersville. Geijer, a paraprofessional, usually works with first graders, but teachers were pitching in all over the school to help the first day go smoothly.

       Rose Geijer escorts Titilayo Ewulo and Ariana Woodfork to their first day of kindergarten Monday at Perry School in Carpentersville. Geijer, a paraprofessional, usually works with first graders, but teachers were pitching in all over the school to help the first day go smoothly.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

 
 

If it feels like school is starting even earlier than usual this year, it's not your imagination.

For at least 20 years, most suburban schools have opened in August. This year, though, some schools started Monday, and others are opening today and Wednesday, a full three weeks before Labor Day.

Mostly, this is a trick of the calendar.

Jeff Schuler, superintendent of Kaneland Unit District 302 in Kane County, said his schools, like many, use Labor Day as the benchmark to count backward and figure out the first day. Labor Day this year is Sept. 3 -- unlike 2009, when it was Sept. 7 -- and correspondingly, school start dates are pushed up.

"We start 1 weeks in front of Labor Day," Schuler explained, which this year is Aug. 22.

But August has been the new September, as far as school is concerned, for a long time, and educators have found advantages.

Starting earlier means high school students finish first-semester courses and finals before winter break, said Wauconda Unit District 118 Superintendent Daniel J. Coles, whose classes start Aug. 15. Elementary and middle school students get an extra week of instruction before they take state exams in the spring, and all the kids get out of school by Memorial Day.

"Getting them in mid-August takes advantage of the magic of the start of the school year," Coles said, rather than pushing school past Memorial Day when kids are tired. "I don't know how productive that ever was."

High school students lose a week of instructional time if they have to review for finals after returning from winter break, he said, and students and parents love having "a real winter break without first semester hanging over their heads."

Wauconda schools have started at least a week earlier than traditional since 2008.

"We wanted to implement the earlier start date sooner," Coles said, "but a couple of our buildings weren't air-conditioned." This is particularly important because of the number of students with asthma, he said.

Naperville Unit District 203 also starts Aug. 15, to balance semesters with the same number of days before and after winter break and to let high school students finish exams before break, said spokeswoman Susan Rice.

She said the school board feels strongly that balanced semesters and exams before the break "should be a primary factor in setting the school calendar."

School districts often cooperate with each other, assuring that elementary and high school students in the same family are following roughly the same attendance calendar. Five Kane County unit districts -- Kaneland, St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia and Central -- have cooperatives for special education and a career center as well.

Schuler says not all the buildings in those districts have air-conditioning. He admits that makes mid-August look a little scary for opening school, so he doubts they'll go any earlier than 1 weeks before Labor Day.

Another factor in school start dates is construction. Schuler said in the eras when suburbs were growing, many school districts had to push off opening day to extend the construction season.

One year, Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 had so much construction going on they started school later than Northwest Suburban High School District 214, the companion high school district, said Renee Zoladz, assistant superintendent. That brought some gentle chiding from parents.

"The parents were understanding, but they asked us to avoid having a different calendar than District 214," she said. District 25 lets District 214 select the dates for opening school and the major breaks, then sets its own calendar.

And while the nation's agricultural heritage no longer influences the school calendar nearly as much as it did, there is still the exception. Both districts 303 and 301 make sure Oct. 5 -- the opening day of the Fall Scarecrow Fest in St. Charles -- is an off day for students.

Early: Some elementary districts follow high school districts' lead

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