In recent years, Michigan school children have enjoyed a three-month summer break, by law not returning to the classroom before Labor Day. But as administrators work to add days to the school calendar, that soon may change.
Paradoxically, the state prohibits schools from starting before Labor Day unless they are granted a waiver, but it is also bumping up the required number of school days. Districts must be in session 180 days and 1,098 hours for the 2016-2017 school year. That’s up from 170 last year and 175 this year.
Kent County superintendents are meeting in mid-October to fit more days into the schools’ common calendar for the 2016-2017 school year, with several ideas on the table: a pre-Labor Day start (by applying for waiver county-wide unless the law is changed), a shorter winter break and eliminating mid-winter break. The common calendar aligns winter, spring and mid-winter breaks so area children have the same days off.
Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff said adding days to the school calendar in June may mean an overall benefit to tourism dollars created by the Labor Day mandate may no longer hold true. Students are already involved in sports, band and extracurricular activities before Labor Day. Most of all, starting school earlier makes sense for many schools.
“At the elementary level, a compressed summer schedule also could be beneficial to prevent regression of learning that occurs over the summer months,” Caniff said.
Wyoming Public Schools’ calendar has stretched from late May or early June until the Tuesday after Labor Day for several years. That will soon change, and Superintendent Tom Reeder, who is on the committee, said starting before Labor Day would align the start of school with extracurriculars.
“I would like to start earlier than Labor Day, when things are back with band and sports and the students have had a break,” he said.
For Kelloggsville Public Schools, the added days won’t change anything, said Tammy Savage, the district’s director or instruction. The district’s school year goes later into June than surrounding schools.
“Kelloggsville has 180 student days in their school year and always has,” Savage said. “It is our belief that in addition to the academics, being in school provides social and emotional support as well as numerous after school activities.
“Additionally, with a high (number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch) we are able to provide two healthy meals each day,” she said, noting that she would like to see the Labor Day law reversed so school can start a week or two prior to the holiday.
Bill Passage Would Change the Law
House Bill 4396 would allow Michigan’s school boards to set their own start date instead of a mandated start after Labor Day. The bill is co-sponsored by Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids. The bill would lock in a four-day holiday weekend, giving students Friday before the holiday off.
For this school year, 100 of the state’s 900-plus districts have applied for waivers to start early anyway, including Greenville Area School District.
Former Superintendent Pete Haines, now Ottawa Area ISD superintendent, said he applied for the waiver because many of the high school students are dual-enrolled at Montcalm Community College, which starts classes before Labor Day. Many other Montcalm County schools also received waivers. Greenville Area School District opened its doors Aug. 31.
Aligning the calendars makes sense, Haines said, but there are other reasons an earlier start works better.
“Frankly, kids are ready to get back,” he said. “They are just ready.”
The issue of snow days also factors into fitting in school days and hours, he said. The last two years have been especially snowy.
“There is a concern over summer slide,” Haines said, referring to learning lost during vacation. “This does open the dialogue for what a more balanced calendar would do.”
More or Less School? History Shows Different Trends
As a way to buoy tourism, the post-Labor Day start law was enacted in 2005 to give families one last summer hurrah before school. This year, with the holiday falling as late as it possibly can on the calendar, most students don’t start school until Sept. 8, following more than three months off.
At the time the law came into effect, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm said it would not affect children because districts will continue to spend the same number of hours at school, with wiggle room for vacation days and how late in the spring districts remain in session.
The change is another about-face for the state. Michigan increased its school calendar requirements through the 1990s, bumping the mandated minimum classroom hours from 900 to 1,098, with a minimum of 180 days in session, according to the report, “School Daze: Michigan’s Shrinking School Year,” created by The Center for Michigan, an Ann Arbor-based think tank.
The goal was to incrementally increase the minimum-day requirement until it reached 190 days in 2006-07. Instead, legislators dropped the day requirement completely as of the 2003-04 school year, leaving a 1,098-hour mandate in place. Lansing told districts that they could shorten the school year by making each school day a few minutes longer, according to the report.
“Eliminating the days requirement coincided with single-state and then the national recession, and some districts dropped back to as few as 145 days a year in their efforts to save money,” according to The Center for Michigan report.
Across the country, many states require 180 days of instruction, and many are in school well before Labor Day. Minnesota and Virginia also have the post-Labor Day start-date law.
Another thing to consider is the oft-cited problem of summer slide, when students who aren’t engaged in dune climbs or museum tours slip back reading levels and forget their math. Many districts already work to make summer more enriching for students through various summer programs.
Godfrey-Lee Superintendent David Britten said the reasoning behind the Labor Day law is “stupid,” but students experience learning loss as a result of not receiving instruction in an in-depth, meaningful way. As for the Labor Day start, he’s not convinced it’s much of a factor.
“I don’t think it matters,” Britten said. “I think it’s what we do during the school year that makes the difference, and that’s what we want to focus on.”