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American Enterprise Bank

Break tradition: lengthen annual school term

Every year about this time the nagging feeling comes around that perhaps we should re-think traditional school calendars, or more specifically, the nine-month school year broken by a nearly three-month summer vacation.

The majority of industrialized countries don’t use it because that large gap between grade levels is believed to be too lengthy. It breaks the learning cycle and puts the burden on teachers to bring students “back to earth” on vital matters like concentration, recalling what they learned last year and delving into new material.

China, for instance, has a school year that runs from early September to mid-July — some six weeks longer than ours (school days run from 7:30 am-5 pm!).

Japan requires 240 days (vs. 180 here) and gives students three equal breaks from April when new levels begin through March.

In South Korea, the year is divided into two semesters — March to July and September to February — with intervening one-month breathers.

The school calendar in widespread use in the U.S. was standardized about 1900 around the model that emerged when children were needed to help on the family farms. Today about three percent of American families derive income from agriculture, and the need for manual labor has greatly diminished.

We can’t use the “needed on the farm” argument to justify the summer break anymore. In fact, we haven’t been able to use it for more than a half-century.

Ditto the argument that it’s too hot to go to school. Everything’s air conditioned (except for pockets at BCHS) and the buildings stand essentially idle for nearly one-quarter of each year.

As for summer being the best time for travel, who sez? With the interstate system and air travel, you can find a neat place to go just about anytime.

The most compelling argument for changing the system, it seems, has nothing to do with any of the above, or with what other countries do for that matter.

The change is needed to motivate young minds. Ten-plus week summer breaks run the danger of turning them into mush, particularly when the “default” involves sitting around an air conditioned house all day being passively entertained by electronics.

Good summer camps ameliorate some of that, but they are expensive and for many children in Baker County inaccessible. In households with both parents working, often children are poorly supervised. Family vacations are nice, but out of reach for many working families. And they can’t last all summer anyway.

Teachers will tell you the coming weeks after school opens can be rough. Preparation for the all-important FCAT tests begins immediately, and the detrimental effects of all those days out of school since late May and early June have to be overcome to move a class of kids forward.

I like the Japanese plan. Including weekends, it gives students and teachers 125 days off each year and the intervening breaks could be built around our traditional holidays (that is, if we’re still allowed to keep our traditional holidays).

A change this radical would necessitate major alterations to school budgets with the addition of 60 more days of school, and proponents (including many teachers) who crave the long break in the present schedule won’t like it. It would likely take several years to phase in a new system, and selling it to all 50 states — well, that’s the tough part.

But a new way to look at school calendars is needed; children who will be expected to compete in a global market simply have too much idle time to fall behind, and they haven’t been needed on the farm for decades.

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