A bill sponsored by Pennsylvania Assemblyman Robert Godshall, of Souderton would restrict school districts from starting school prior to Labor Day. The intention of the proposed legislation is to benefit amusement parks, which employ high school students and hope to increase attendance at their parks during what is often considered the last week of summer.As a school director, I am insulted that the General Assembly would even consider taking away the opportunity for school boards to make a decision based upon conditions in their local community. I believe that local school directors should continue to have the responsibility to set the school calendar, a right that they now have by school law. According to an article in the "Morning Call" on August 26, "Nearly 90 percent of school districts start school before the holiday weekend."
As every teacher knows, not all days in the school term are equal. Most students are ready to come back to school in late August. Their parents are certainly ready to send them back. Students are ready to learn at the beginning of the school term. Delaying the beginning date moves the conclusion of the term well into mid-June, when students are not as receptive to learning.
Before commenting directly upon the proposed legislation, some historical perspective about the school term would be helpful. It is typical to refer to the school calendar to which we have grown accustomed as an "agricultural calendar" as it was created when farm children were needed during the summer months to help with farm crops.
The present calendar evolved about 125 years ago. The 1880s were a transitional period for public education. Prior to that decade there were typically two school terms, a "summer term" during the hot summer months for children too young to be of much use as farm laborers and a "winter term" when the older children went to school when they were not needed on the farms. During the 1880s the two terms were merged to run from late summer to late spring. It was considered a major accomplishment to have a continuous school term.
Coincidentally, the labor movement achieved a day of recognition, Labor Day, which happened to occur at the same time as the beginning of the school term. But this was just a coincidence. There is no logical or historical connection between Labor Day and the commencement of the school term.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, most school districts had a nine-month term. Given a few holidays and weekends when school was not in session, an average month had twenty days in which school was in session. Over the nine months from September to May a school term of 180 days became standard.
The 180 day school term is still the standard, but the school calendar has expanded well into June. One reason for this is that more school holidays have been included in the school year. Prior to the Second World War there were few days off. Schools were closed for Columbus Day, two days for Thanksgiving, a week between Christmas and New Year's Day, Washington's Birthday, and Good Friday. With few holidays, 180 days would be completed prior to Memorial Day, and farm children were out of school in time to help to plant corn and soy beans.
Compare that calendar with today's calendar with its many three-day weekends. Many national holidays are on Mondays. These long weekends have helped the tourist industries as well as department stores which conduct sales. There are also additional religious holidays as communities have become more multi-cultural. Traditionally, the local schools closed out of respect for Christian holy days. But as communities have become more multi-cultural, other faith groups have asked that students have an opportunity to worship on their holy days.
But the main reason why school terms have to begin prior to Labor Day and end after Memorial Day is that schools are being asked to do more, and additional days are needed so that the teachers can have time for staff development, conferences with parents, assessment of student performance and to insure that there is sufficient instruction so that the students are prepared for the state tests.
Perhaps part of the angst of the amusement parks is the fact that college students are back at their studies by Labor Day. Twenty years ago college classes began after Labor Day but most higher education institutions now begin a week or so prior to Labor Day. If student labor is so important to the amusement parks, why don't they ask the General Assembly to require all public institutions of higher education to begin after Labor Day, rather than just the public schools?
Our General Assembly has a responsibility under the state constitution to provide a "thorough and efficient" system of public schools, not to generate obscene profits for amusement parks. Passage of the post-Labor Day school start legislation would be a sure indication that the money that the amusement parks have poured into this effort is more important to state legislators than student achievement.
Dr. Robert Leight is a member of the Quakertown Community School District Board of School Directors, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.