Calendar–Why When LAUSD Starts Its School Year Matters

When a family has been in this district as long as my family has been, we’ve been through quite a bit of change. Back in the mid 1990s, my son went to half-day kindergarten. Made sense because that’s what we did as kids. Because my husband and I both work from home, a decade later, we looked for half-day programs for my daughter, and we found that the half-day programs only served up English-Language Arts and Math–all the arts, social studies, and ‘fun’ stuff required full-day kinder. So we begrudgingly focused on the full-day programs that would provide our daughter with painting and clay and singing and PE rather than three hours of sitting on the rug. Full-day still had three hours of sitting, but that’s not all they did. And she thrived. And what we used to know was wrong.

Fast forward to my daughter in third grade, and we heard that the San Fernando Valley was piloting a new calendar. I’d seen the first suggestions of “early start” at a town hall meeting where when parents asked about air conditioning on the magnet busses, and in a ‘let them eat cake’ moment, the then school board member suggested the children be provided water on the busses on very hot days. With no bathrooms aboard the busses, and someone asking when was the last time the board member had driven a car without air conditioning, that measure died then and there in most parents’ minds. But a few years later, LAUSD was piloting a program in the West Valley that would have students starting in mid August–three weeks early. High school students and teachers loved it.

To be clear, what neither early start or a later start will do, is shorten or lengthen the summer. The state dictates the school year is 180 days. Where LAUSD gets it a bit wonky is the amount of days off in that first semester. When school started after Labor Day, they avoided both Admissions Day and Labor Day–the four day weekend after the kids have been in school one full week. After the recession and the furlough days of the mid 2000s, they added the full week at Thanksgiving permanently. And the three weeks at Winter Break are the vestigal organ of a long-forgotten local-control program that predates my son’s kindergarten experience. The longer Thanksgiving and Winter Breaks supposedly help with attendance, since some people try to leave for longer periods or stay longer in their travels.

So why have kids start in August? If you have a high school student, you’ll understand this better. And the good news is that everyone with a student in LAUSD–even in kindergarten–will at some point have a high school student if all goes well (the goal is to have them graduate, leave the house and not live in our basements, right?).

Having finals over before the break has been a godsend in high school. While my son spent much of his three-week break trying to study, read, and get projects done before his finals in late January, my daughter in high school has rested, visted with friends, and read whatever she wanted. When she returns, nothing is hanging over her head, she has her grades in for the first semester, and she starts the second semester after a nice long break, ready to learn with nothing forgotten.

One of the groups most at risk of not graduating is students who move or are at risk of being homeless. Sadly in LAUSD that is a too large a group. Students who take those finals in December have their course credits secure. Poor students are not going to have the ability to return to LAUSD to take finals in late January. If they move to an area that’s already had finals, they’re likely to lose that semester.

As students get further into high school, there’s even more incentive. Got a senior (or, again, plan to have one)? They will be starting their college applications (if they haven’t already) in October. Should that be six weeks into the school year or should that be less than three weeks after school starts? Given that students are still switching classes and being programmed in those first three weeks, I’d much rather their English teachers and the college counselors have longer with the kids before they need to start the applications in earnest. In addition, we’ve already been to some college meet and greets that discuss looking at the whole child in their applications. Student who have their finals taken in December have their entire application in likely a month sooner than those who will still be taking finals into late January.

Moving into the spring, you’ll hear about the AP kids. Advanced Placement courses are basically a fact of life for high schoolers at this point. Students complete college level work in a high school class, and in May, they take a test. Score well enough, and they receive college credit at many colleges. Once those tests are over in mid-late May, the classes are pretty much done. Shortening up those weeks between mid-May and the end of the year shortens that wasted time.

Look at the school that pioneered the earlier start. Granada. Heck, that’s the primary reason they wanted to go charter. They wanted say over their own calendar (and absences). At the time they looked extreme, but LAUSD moved to pilot the program in the West Valley, then all of LAUSD. And one by one, all the nearby districts have done the same. And so have private schools. Ironically without the wonky extra holidays and breaks and day off, Granada and private schools, like Chaminade, actually get out in late May and give families that longer break that many LAUSD families are looking for. They still start in mid August, but they got out before Memorial Day–or right after.

You’ll hear that in New York City students still start after Labor Day. And if you look at their calendar, you’ll also see they have ONE week for Winter Break. Here in LA, families who want vacations can still take them, just in June instead of the heat in August. And the LAUSD busses have AC now. Yes it’s hot in August. And it’s hot in September and October, too, thanks to Santa Ana winds. And while we’re talking about the heat of August, there are families in LAUSD that don’t have AC, since it’s not a requirement for habitability in California rentals. School is a better place than a sweltering apartment too. The semesters are roughly 80 days in the first semester and 100 in the second. I’ve been assured by administrators that given the testing schedule in the spring, this isn’t a deal breaker either. They’re even considering two calendars. One for high schoolers and one for elementary/middle. Not sure that will be well received either, because those same siblings are often needed for childcare, but if you do have a lot of school functions, there’d be fewer conflicts with school functions.

We dreaded the early start calendar. We thought it would be awful. We were wrong. The LAUSD calendar can be tweaked. What most parents want is to start as late as possible in August and still take finals before Winter Break. So what LAUSD needs to do is to cut down on Thanksgiving break, and school doesn’t have to get out on December 15th for the break.

It will take real leadership to actually rework the calendar. The survey you’ll see will just ask you to fill in a bubble. Let’s save the bubbles for whether you want chicken or fish at a wedding. I’m hoping for more from our school board on such a critical decision.

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