Why suburban schools are starting so early this year

While it's protected by law in neighboring Wisconsin, the once traditional practice of starting the school year in September is virtually extinct in suburban Chicago.

In fact, many suburban school districts are welcoming students back to classes earlier than ever, part of a trend largely driven by high schools' desire to hold first-semester finals before winter break. That's leading their feeder elementary districts to follow suit with mid-August starting dates.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, among the 802 approved district calendars for the upcoming school year, 667 start classes before Monday, Aug. 22. Another 96 start on Aug. 22, while only 39 start after that day.

Due to a quirk in this year's calendar, the always-first Mundelein High School started even earlier than usual, with the first class bells ringing Tuesday, Aug. 9.

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 starts Aug. 15, and Barrington Unit District 220 begins in a week, on Aug. 22.

For District 211, one of the priorities in creating the calendar was for the school year to have the maximum number of days — 185 — even though the law allows fewer.

“Every day of instruction is absolutely critical,” Superintendent Dan Cates said.

Having the first semester end before winter break not only allows students to have a restful two weeks off, but it allows the district to better use each day in scheduling both instruction time and testing, he added.

District 220 school board President Brian Battle said educational reasons are behind the earlier start dates. Though the debate leading District 220's change was at times controversial, there have been few complaints and no problems since it was enacted two years ago, Battle said.

“I think there's been an overwhelming support among parents, students and staff that this was a good thing,” Battle said.

Controversy also accompanied Mundelein High School's change — but after 20 years, it's become a distant memory, Mundelein High School District 120 spokesman Ron Girard said.

Families are accustomed to the calendar, and the four elementary districts that send students to Mundelein High have adjusted to be within a week or two of the same starting date, he said.

The district's intent was to have semesters similar to those of colleges. But while a college semester is only 15 weeks long, the 18-week semester of a public high school district necessitated starting earlier, Girard said.

A secondary benefit was that Mundelein High students have traditionally had a jump on summer jobs, with their school year ending in mid-May.

There's been no negative impact on sports, though the first football game is no longer during the first week of school and spring sport athletes often compete beyond the last day of class. Girard noted that there have been many instances of baseball players running onto the graduation stage in their uniforms to receive their diplomas. And some area swimming pools close in August because they've lost all their lifeguards to the start of the school year.

“I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages,” Girard said.

This year's first day, however, was earlier than normal by about a week, in part because the district wanted to continue observing holidays like Columbus Day and Yom Kippur with days off for students.

Schools' limited ability to air-condition their buildings may have been reasons behind the once traditional September start of the school year. But with Mundelein's campus being air-conditioned, it gives the district the flexibility to make the best educational decision, Girard said.

While unit districts like District 220 can synchronize high school and elementary school starting times, high school districts like District 211 don't have the same level of control of its feeder districts.

One of them — Palatine Township Elementary District 15 — moved its first day up to Wednesday, Aug. 17, to more closely match District 211's calendar. But the other — Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 — is staying put with Monday, Aug. 22. Neither has received any complaints about their decisions, officials said.

District 15 Superintendent Scott Thompson said giving families with children in districts 15 and 211 the same summer vacation days was a top motive for matching the calendars.

But there also were a few even more practical reasons. Among them are the ability for newly graduated eighth-graders to attend summer school at their future high schools, and for District 15 graduations to have access to the high schools' gymnasiums.

District 54 spokeswoman Terri McHugh said the scheduling of professional development opportunities for staff this summer kept the district from trying to match District 211's start date.

This may or may not change in future years, she added.

“Every year the calendar is considered anew, so I could not speak for the calendar committee,” McHugh said.

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