For millions of California schoolchildren, the end of summer depends on where they live and attend school.
Historically, Labor Day has had a bittersweet quality – marking the end of a months-long summer break for students, and relief for parents who are able to finally send their children back to school and return to their regular routines.
But that historical pattern no longer exists in California.
A survey by EdSource of the state’s 30 largest districts, serving one-third of the state’s 6 million students, shows that only seven will start school after Labor Day. The remaining districts began on varying dates during the preceding four weeks.
One school district – Sweetwater Union High School District – actually opened on July 23. However, in an unusual scheduling tweak, students there can look forward to a week-long fall recess beginning on Sept. 22, a three-week winter break, and another week off in the spring.
In most cases, the motivation to start earlier is not to offer extra instructional days or to shorten the traditional summer vacation. Rather, its purpose is to allow school districts to complete the first semester of instruction before the winter break.
That means students can take their final exams before the Christmas holidays – and, officials say, often get better grades without holiday distractions getting in the way of their studies.
Los Angeles Unified, by far the state’s largest school district, and the second-largest in the nation, has put a definitive stamp on California’s changing summer schedule.
For the third year in a row, when students filed into their classrooms on Aug. 12, they were starting school a full three weeks before the traditional post-Labor Day opening. “The schedule permits students to finish the first semester without the period carrying over into January after the holidays,” said district spokesperson Daryl Strickland.
Along with Los Angeles, seven other districts also opened last week. By the end of this week, half of the state’s largest 30 districts will be open.
The first day of school came even earlier – on Aug. 7 – for the 40,000 students in the Fontana Unified School District. Olivier Wong Ah Sun, the district’s chief of staff, said an earlier start date has become the norm in Southern California’s Inland Empire. The era of starting school after Labor Day, he said, is “long over.” “We wanted to make sure that we could fit in all the instructional material before the winter break,” he said.
LA Unified initiated its early start calendar three years ago, based on the experience of several district schools in the San Fernando Valley that had instituted a similar schedule. At the time, Superintendent John Deasy said the changed schedule had been popular among students and parents in schools where it had been tried and that it had had a “positive impact on final exams and grades.”
As a result of the earlier opening, LA schools will close earlier – on June 4. Officials said this arrangement is especially advantageous for high school students because it opens up more options for them in summer programs and summer job opportunities. It also coincides more closely with college schedules, making it easier for families with children in both high school and college to align their vacation plans.
What the changed schedule does not address is the academic “learning loss” that research shows is tied to long summer vacations. Some districts, like Fontana Unified, have extended the winter break from two weeks to three weeks. Others have added ski weeks, or in some cases a week-long break in the fall as well.
Inserting these extra vacation days into the school year means that some districts have been able to shrink summer breaks from 2½ months to about two months. But long summer vacations remain the norm, despite changes that have been made to their start and end dates.
The earlier start dates have also not resulted in extra instructional days, because districts typically don’t have the funds to extend the time children are in the classroom.
For years, California school districts were required to offer 180 days of instruction. In 2009, the state Legislature reduced the minimum number of days to 175 to help districts cope with the state’s budget crisis.
A 2013 EdSource survey found that almost all of the state’s largest districts have restored the instructional year to 180 days – which is still far fewer than the number of days offered in many industrial countries. Australia, the Netherlands and Singapore, for example, offer a school year of 200 days. Korea’s school year is 220 days, and Switzerland’s is 225.
Not all parents are happy about the earlier start date. Rhi Farrell’s daughter Keely started 5th grade on Aug. 13 at Bridgeport Elementary School in the Saugus Union School District in Valencia. Farrell said that the shorter summer gave her family less time to squeeze in activities like a road trip to see the missions of California.
Farrell grew up in Arkansas, where summer vacation was almost three months long, beginning in early June and ending after Labor Day. By contract, her daughter’s district has shrunk the summer break to just over two months by substituting a three-week winter break, and one-week vacations in October and in the spring. Farrell, who is active in the PTA in her region, concedes that as much as her daughter likes an extended summer break, she was also “excited about going back to school and seeing her friends again.”
By contrast, Beth Neely, whose son Connor attended Grapeland Elementary in Rancho Cucamonga last year, loves her district’s Aug. 4 start date – and maybe even more importantly the earlier end of the school year.
School ended on May 21 last year, which allowed her family “to get a head start on summer activities while everyone else was at school.” “We had two or three weeks when things weren’t packed,” she said.
Her son’s current schedule, which has shaved off a couple of weeks from the traditional three-month summer vacation she enjoyed when she was a child, makes a lot more sense, she said.
“I like it, Neely said. “I wouldn’t want it another way.”
Research assistance was provided by Celeste Llamido for this report.