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Back to School, Five Times Over

Districts Choose Different Days for pre-Labor Day Start

There was excitement in the halls of Comstock Park Public Schools Monday, but it was a lot earlier than usual.

Nancy Dahl sat at the attendance window in the main office at the high school, and worked with practiced efficiency to get a long line of students their parking lot passes, doctor slips and other first-day necessities.

It was Dahl’s 23rd first day at the school, and she took it in stride that it came earlier this year – much earlier.

“It’s the first day for students but not for much of the staff. I’ve been here two weeks already,” she said. “And I think it’s kind of neat we’re going to have a solar eclipse on the first day.”

Meanwhile, over at Pine Island Elementary, Alfonso Ruff stood on the sidewalk as his granddaughter and a friend made their way through throngs of third- through fifth-graders who gathered around signs printed with their new teachers’ names.

Who Starts When?

Monday, Aug. 21: Grandville, Comstock Park, Godfrey-Lee, Godwin Heights, Kent Career Tech Center and Kent Innovation High
Tuesday, Aug. 22: Wyoming, Thornapple Kellogg, Lowell and Kentwood
Wednesday, Aug. 23: Kent City
Monday, Aug. 28: Caledonia, Forest Hills, Grand Rapids, Kenowa Hills, Northview and Rockford
Tuesday, Sept. 5: Byron Center, Cedar Springs, East Grand Rapids, Kelloggsville and Sparta

“She couldn’t wait to go back,” Ruff said, laughing.

Whether thousands of other students shared her enthusiasm about cutting summer short would take a major exit survey to determine. But at least some Comstock Park students didn’t find it a big deal Monday, when their district was one of four in Kent ISD to open two weeks before the traditional post-Labor Day start – and one of nine opening this week.

Indeed, given the option this year to open before Labor Day, 15 of Kent ISD’s 20 school districts chose to do so. Five were to open today and tomorrow, and six more next week, thanks to a waiver the ISD received from the state for its districts. They joined a record 123 local and intermediate districts approved to waive the state-mandated post-Labor Day start, which was aimed to boost the tourist industry but crimped school calendars last year after the state required five more instruction days.

Kristi Altman, third-grade teacher at Pine Island Elementary, greets a new student. “I really like it,” Altman said of the district’s earlier start date. “It allows me time to prepare them to work together the rest of the year”

Plenty Say They’re Ready

Although starting school when many families are still on vacation has predictably generated complaints, many say the earlier start is better for student learning, frees up more breaks over the school yearand allows school to end earlier next June. Surveys in Forest Hills Public Schools this year found two-thirds of parents and 82 percent of employee respondents favored a pre-Labor Day start.

In fact, many Kent ISD superintendents favored a common start date of Monday, Aug. 21, but some districts felt that was too early or were locked into multi-year employee agreements. Others, like Sparta, couldn’t start before Labor Day because of construction schedules.

After getting district input, superintendents adopted five different start dates. Kent Career Tech Center and other ISD campus schools did open Monday, however, requiring some districts to bus their students there before their own schools opened (see related story).

Ginger VanderBeek, a fourth-grade teacher at Wyoming’s Oriole Park Elementary School, was ready for her students to return on Tuesday. She said the shorter summer reduces learning loss, but also allows students to ease into the school year with four-day weeks the first two weeks.

Related Story: Why Pre-Labor Day? The Details

Comstock Park High School junior Elijah Ross was all smiles at the main entrance Monday morning. He said he has volunteered to greet students in the morning since he was at Mill Creek Middle School. Starting two weeks early this year was “really no different,” he said

“Elementary students are ready to see their friends, get back to routines, and parents I have talked to are ready to send students back,” VanderBeek said. And despite hot classrooms, she said, “I would rather have heat on the front end of the school year as we review materials, than on the end of the school year.”

For many superintendents, key considerations were exam and standardized-test schedules, aligning classes with early college and Kent ISD campus programs, and the fact that athletic teams and bands have already begun practicing – football games begin this week. Those were factors for Kentwood Public Schools, which were to open today after ending school late on June 15.

“By starting two weeks early our high school students will be able to finish their first semester right before Christmas Break, instead of taking their exams after the two-week break,” said Superintendent Mike Zoerhoff. “We think that will help them be more successful on their exams.”

As for the supposed post-Labor Day benefits to tourism, those don’t apply equally to all districts, said William Fetterhoff, superintendent of Godwin Heights Public Schools, which opened Monday.

“My demographics don’t necessarily go on vacation or go away in the summer,” said Fetterhoff, adding that many families in the low-income district rely on the schools for food and other support services. “When our kids aren’t here, a lot of them don’t get those supports and opportunities.”

In Kent City, which opens Wednesday, Superintendent Mike Weiler said an early start is simply better for students’ learning – and they’re ready to come back by now anyway.

“I always thought it was better to start in August, but for 10 years we started after Labor Day because we had to,” Weiler said.

An End to Calendar Confusion?

By the 2018-19 school year, Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff foresees the majority of Kent ISD districts starting Aug. 21, excluding districts with multi-year collective bargaining agreements that have dates locked in. A pre-Labor Day start makes sense for local districts, given the restored state requirement of 180 school days and 1,098 hours of instruction, he said.

“Starting after Labor Day means schools are getting out in mid-June and in some cases, if you add snow days, late June,” Caniff said.

Late June eats into summer camps and jobs for many students, points out Northview Superintendent Scott Korpak, adding, “You really want to get done by that second Friday in June.” And students learn better at the beginning of the school year than at a dragged-out end, many educators agree, while too much summer can mean learning loss.

“We truly believe additional time with our students is the answer,” said Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools, which open Aug. 28. “Kids are home a long time (over summer). When they come back early … we can hit the ground running, to get them back in the framework of ‘This is how we do school.’”

In any case, area districts should have a common calendar, she said: “It becomes very chaotic for one district to go, and another one not.”

Craig Taetsch, president of the Kenowa Hills Education Foundation, said he is fine with his two children returning to school on Aug. 28. “They’re ready now,” he said of Conner and Kylah, students at Zinser Elementary, and no family trips are disrupted. However, he would oppose an Aug. 21 start.

“That’s way too early, especially in Michigan,” Taetsch said. “We live for the summer vacation months. We’ve got to let our kids be kids.

“If we’re going to go back that early,” he added, “we really should consider full-year school, and realize we’re not a farming economy anymore.”


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