Two of the most beautiful words in the English language must be “summer vacation,” a phrase with a promise as open and infinite as an August sky.
But in this age of dwindling horizons, summer, along with everything else, seems to be shrinking.
Over the past two decades, many Georgia schools have begun opening their doors earlier in August, despite efforts by some legislators and parents to reverse the trend. So while the weather may suggest it’s time for a lazy day in the hammock, the school calendar says its almost time to shine those shoes.
Some folks, tired of children underfoot, are singing hallelujah. Others are steamed.
“As an unreconstructed Yankee, I hate the Georgia school schedule,” said Chris Murphy of southeast Atlanta, whose two daughters go back to school Aug. 9. “It’s hot outside! I’m just glad I’m not a teacher.”
A native of Binghamton, N.Y., Murphy spent his childhood summers canoeing and fishing. School didn’t start until after Labor Day.
Many schools in the Northeast and West Coast still hew to that calendar, which makes it “unfathomable” to Murphy that so many Georgians spend one of the hottest months inside the classroom.
Most Georgia schools operate on a 180-day calendar; many of those starting earlier also get out earlier. Some, including Cobb schools, have adopted a “balanced” calendar, with shorter summers and vacation weeks scattered through the school year.
Cobb school board members voted for a balanced calendar last fall, trimming two weeks off summer vacation and enraging a vocal group of parents. (Teacher furloughs have added a few of those days back to summer.)
“This is an educational fad,” said Vivian Jackson, of Marietta, co-founder of Georgians Need Summers.
Jackson, who has two daughters in Cobb schools, opposes an early August school start not because of sentimental feelings but because of cooling costs.
“Ask anybody who tries to cool their house in August: It’s the most expensive time of the year to cool anything,” she said. Since Cobb expects a $126 million deficit next year, and has laid off hundreds of teachers, Jackson believes the system should save cash wherever possible.
Less time to be bored
But it’s losing magic, not money, that worries many summer advocates.
“I grew up in a neighborhood north of Rome, a neighborhood full of kids, and we were not allowed to stay inside and play,” said Duncan Blankenship, who teaches social studies in Floyd County, where students return Aug. 9. “If we didn’t have a ball bat, we’d use tennis balls and cut-off broomsticks and play ball in the front yard. We had to be creative.”
Today’s shorter summers are often thoroughly programmed, giving children less time to be bored, and, eventually, inventive. Summer ennui is important, said Tina Bruno, executive director of the San Antonio-based Coalition for a Traditional School Calendar. “You don’t appreciate the structure of school until you are bored at home.”
But whether idle time is salutary or an invitation to mischief is up for debate.
“For many kids [that free time] turns into video game marathons,” said Harris Cooper, chairman of Duke University’s department of psychology and neuroscience.
Cooper, who has studied the impact of modified calendars on school achievement, said poorer parents probably don’t have the resources to fill a 12-week summer with camps, trips and vacations. Even middle-class parents struggle, he said.
For some parents, the earlier start date is fine. “School can’t come quick enough for me,” said Tawana Chaudhry. The Hapeville mom and her 9-year-old daughter, Ashley Dixon, were dressed for summer in matching flip-flops, but shopping for school clothes at the Lenox Square Macy’s. “My daughter really hasn’t been doing a whole lot this summer. It’s time.”
Chaudhry doesn’t want her honor student to forget her lessons, or lose momentum in core subjects.
Macy’s was also ready for school to begin, staging a back-to-school event at Lenox in the middle of July. It’s an example of the way businesses have adjusted to the new schedule.
Six Flags Over Georgia, for example, moves to weekend-only hours after Aug. 8.
Some industries that depend on summer tourism and vacation activities consider the effort to shrink summer a mistake.
Camp Mac, a family-owned summer camp near Cheaha Mountain, Ala., once offered 12 weeks of camp; now it schedules 10, said staff director Allen McBride. And it must compete for customers with family vacations, summer school and theme parks.
“Children have more summer opportunities than ever, and yet there’s less summer than ever before,” he said.
McBride cited an Alabama legislator’s study that showed that early school starts would cost the state’s summer economy $323 million — more than the BP oil spill.
The Georgia Legislature perennially introduces a bill to require a uniform late-August starting date for Georgia schools, and it is perennially voted down. North Carolina, Florida and Texas have all passed similar bills.
“We’re not trying to harm the summer recreation industry,” said Charles Ballinger, executive director emeritus of the San Diego-based National Association for Year-Round Education, which promotes a shorter summer. Parents, he suggests, can spend their summer dollars in eight weeks as well as in 12.
Kelly Henson advocated a shorter summer in Floyd County schools as superintendent there. Today he is the executive secretary of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
He said that long-summer boosters should focus on education, not heat: “The fact that it’s a bit hot, or that it might interfere with premier league baseball; none of that trumps the idea that a child ought to get a quality education.”
Importance of education
Summer defenders say there is little evidence of improved academic performance as a result of an early return to school.
“Any research done has shown no appreciable positive impact,” said Yankee dad Chris Murphy, “and not everything a kid needs to learn is in school.”
On a recent afternoon at Stone Mountain Park, school was a distant vision as 6-year-old Clay “Ty” Johns splashed around in a man-made river near the Sky Hike attraction.
His great-grandfather, James Douglas Conley, 76, wanted the boy to enjoy the kind of summer he had as a youngster: fishing, swimming and taking it easy.
“I still remember catching my first trout, ” said Conley. “We would go to fishing holes and stay there all day.”
The pair have visited Conley’s childhood fishing spots in Helen and Lake Burton, and Ty caught his first trout this summer.
Still, Conley doesn’t betray the slightest hint of sentimentality when talking about Ty returning to school in early August.
“Yes, it’s about time for them to go back,” he said with conviction.
The current economic crisis, he said, underscores the importance of a good education and how fiercely competitive the job market can be.
Even Ty said he was looking forward to school. But he didn’t want to rush it.
How much longer until we have to leave, Ty asked the man he calls “Papa.”
“We’re in no hurry,” said Conley.
A few minutes later, he asked again: “But Papa Doug, how much longer?”
“As long as you want, Ty. We can stay here all day if you want.”
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