Instead of making study guides and cramming for finals, Lily Moradi will spend winter break this year relaxing and enjoying time with her friends and family.
Moradi, a senior at Barrington High School, is just one of thousands of students in the suburbs benefiting from a growing trend of school districts changing their schedules to place first-semester exams before, rather than after, winter break.
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"I never could really enjoy my winter break. I always had to put time away for studying," Moradi said. "Now kids can finally have a stress-free vacation."
Ending first semester before winter break is new this year at Barrington High School but something several other schools are considering or already have done.
High schools in Elgin Area Unit School District U-46 made the change last year, two years after Carpentersville-based Unit District 300. Maine Township High School District 207 will switch next year. Grant High School District 124, Mundelein District 120, Wauconda High School District 118, Round Lake Area Unit District 116 and Warren Township High School District 121 in Lake County have been ending the first semester before winter break for years.
Previously, students typically had a two-week break for the holidays beginning in late December, returned in January to review what was taught before break and then took finals in the middle of the month. That's still the case in many suburban school districts, including Northwest Suburban High School District 214, St. Charles District 303 and Stevenson High School District 125.
Officials in districts that have made the switch, which also comes with an earlier start to the school year, say there are several benefits for students and teachers.
"We think teachers can be more efficient with instruction this way because they won't need January to reteach material that may have become a little hazy because of the two-week interruption that happens with winter break," said Dave Beery, director of communications with District 207.
Students in District 207 started classes Monday and will end the school year on June 10. Next year, classes are scheduled to begin almost two weeks sooner, on Aug. 12, and end May 26.
By starting earlier, students will have more days of instruction before standardized and Advanced Placement testing occurs in the spring, Beery said. And by finishing earlier, they'll possibly get a head start on summer jobs, he said.
The new schedule mirrors what is done at most colleges and universities, with first semester ending before holiday break and second starting after, said Barrington High School Principal Stephen McWilliams.
Some schools are converting traditional days off such as Columbus Day and Veterans Day into attendance days to help balance the calendar and make sure the first and second semesters have equal days of instruction.
School officials say the biggest benefit for students is the elimination of an unnecessary interruption of the semester.
"We felt there was too large of break between instruction and finals. It was fragmented," said Elgin High School Principal Jerry Cook. Elgin is one of five U-46 high schools that made the first semester shift last year.
The change also means more productive time in the days before the break. Under the previous schedule, those days often were reduced to movie and party days because so many students were pulled out early to get a head start on family vacations.
"Now that families recognize that finals would be missed, they are less likely to pull them out of school," Cook said. "In the past, the last couple of days, the level of instruction would diminish because people were ready to go on break. Now, you have rigorous instruction going on right up until break."
The switch has been well received by District 207 students staff and families, according to a study done before the school board approved the change in June. According to the results of a survey, more than 75 percent of students, 67 percent of the staff and 73 percent of parents all said they would prefer finals before winter break.
If there is a downside, it is that the change puts more pressure on the teachers to ensure that all grading is done so they also can enjoy a work-free winter break.
"Something we did not anticipate was the added stress for the teachers," Cook said. "The week before the holidays is now also the last week for the teachers as well, so it's pretty busy."
Cook said teachers in U-46 have a few days into the holiday break to submit grades, but most try to get everything done before break starts.
At Barrington, report cards won't go out until mid-January, so teachers will have a full week after break to finish grading finals and projects, McWilliams said.
While the new schedule may make for an especially busy week before break, with finals, holiday concerts and other events all falling on the same few days, Lily Moradi said she is looking forward to it.
At Barrington, seniors with a B or better average don't have to take finals second semester, so once she finishes her first-semester tests, she can start looking ahead to college.
"This will be the last winter break before I go off to college, and I'll actually be able to enjoy it," she said.