Yes, the first day of school really does come earlier every year

Controversy over start dates

If you’re one of those parents who hold Christmas and back to school seasons in identical regard — both inexorable, expensive events that seem to come earlier every year — we have some good news for you: You’re right.

The first day of school in many metro Atlanta school districts has crept earlier over the past ten years, in some districts daring to edge its way into the month of July this year.

Blame or thank the trend towards school calendars that privilege more or longer breaks during the school year over later start dates.

While some parents and educators say a longer school year helps children, particularly poor children, from losing ground over the summer, the research isn’t decisive. School calendar decisions often come down to adult preferences, vacation deals and pressure to stay in tune with neighboring districts.

“Some of this could be going under cover of academic performance but it’s really adult preference and convenience,” said Vanderbilt University professor of education Barb Stengel.

That’s not an awful thing, she said. But changes in school schedules can create winners and losers, leaving some families scrambling to find child care during breaks, for example, while giving others more opportunities for family vacations or educational camps.

“That’s a conversation worth having and we have to be very careful about why we’re having it and who’s going to be privileged by it,” she said.

Ten years ago, most of Atlanta’s largest districts started in mid-August. This year, they start a week earlier — or two weeks earlier, in Cobb County, which has been through a series of particularly nasty fights over school calendar decisions in the past decade contributing to complaints to the district’s accrediting agency and the election of new board members.

This year, Cobb County students head back to school on July 31. Atlanta’s first day is Aug. 1. DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett all start on Aug. 7. The last day of school for those districts ranges from May 23-25, about the same time as ten years ago.

“In developing the calendar we simply looked at the end of first semester in December, accounted for any Board-approved breaks…and worked our way back,” Cobb County schools spokesperson Donna Lowry said. “The resulting first day was Monday, July 31.”

Parent Nan Cooper likes Fulton County’s calendar. School always starts on a Monday in early August, and unlike in some neighboring districts, there aren’t too many weeklong vacations, other than the usual ones, like spring break.

By contrast, Cobb County takes an extra week break in September and another in February.

“I think their new calendar stinks,” said Cooper, who lives in north Fulton, with a student in high school.

She said the multiple mini-vacations throughout the school year might be nice for families that can afford trips to destinations like Disneyland during off-peak times when there aren’t crowds. But, she said, kids typically take a day or two to get back on track after each break. And schools with unusual vacations can prove a challenge for family schedules, she said, with kid camps unavailable and amusement parks closed.

RELATED: The end of summer break: here’s when metro schools re-open

Georgia schools generally must be in session for at least 180 days or the equivalent, which can mean fewer but longer school days, Georgia Department of Education spokesperson Meghan Frick said. Schools deviating from that requirement lose some state funding.

Some states set requirements on when schools can open, sometimes prompted by lobbying from tourism businesses looking to capitalize on summer vacations. Virginia schools can’t start before Labor Day. Texas bars most schools from opening before the fourth Monday in August. In Tennessee, school generally can’t start before Aug. 1. Georgia has no such requirement.

Henry County schools moved its mid-August start date earlier about 15 years ago and added more breaks in an attempt to prevent “burnout” among both students and teachers, district spokesperson J.D. Hardin said. Henry County students start July 31 this year and have week-long breaks in October and April and a two-week December break.

In a 2016 Atlanta Public Schools survey on potential school calendars, the most popular option included the earliest start date — Aug. 1 — and five-day breaks for students in October and February. But respondents in Atlanta’s most affluent schools, those feeding into Grady and North Atlanta high schools, preferred a calendar with a later start date and slightly shorter breaks during the year.

The key, superintendent Meria Carstarphen said then, was “finding a way to get more time without simply extending the school day by 20 minutes.”

But for some teachers, the new school year started weeks ago. New teachers at KIPP charter schools in Atlanta have been in the classroom since July 10, with new students starting July 26. Teachers in most metro Atlanta districts officially start a week before students return.

KIPP has always started on the earlier side in order to teach staff about the school’s academics and culture, executive director Kinnari Patel-Smyth said.

“We have found this time to be critically important and believe that this professional development helps ensure our staff is prepared for the new school year,” she said.

Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this article.

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