Monday, August 22, 2011

Summertime, and the Living Is...Full of Homework?

A friend of mine pointed out this morning that today is the start of classes in Washington, DC, and nearby Prince George's County in Maryland. Another neighboring county opens its school doors next week.

That news might have shocked me - if I hadn't just returned from a family trip to Tennessee, where public schools started on August 8. It took us a while to figure out why the hotel staff kept asking our kids how they liked classes so far, and why the local amusement park was only open on weekends.

Nearly three-quarters of all U.S. school districts now start their year before Labor Day; we in New York are among the few September stragglers. While our southern neighbors are prepping for tests and marking soccer-match dates on their calendars, we're only just getting around to hitting Office Depot for pencils, dry-erase markers, marble notebooks and schoolwork folders (five two-pocket ones, each in a different color even if your child hates green and purple, and label each one with your child's name and check it every afternoon and try not to freak out when he forgets to bring his assignments home for the third day in a row, kthxbai.)

The issue of school calendar length isn't a new one. The summer break was established in the 1840s in response to poor school attendance in urban areas and the fear that a year-round schedule was bad for children's health. Now we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, with some education experts arguing that an extra month of school could improve grades and boost American students' embarrassingly low international ranking in math and science. One of Rahm Emanuel's first acts as Chicago mayor was to add more hours to the city's relatively short school day. Even in cash-strapped districts that have opted to shorten the school week - cramming five days' worth of learning into four - parents worry that the lost day will spell academic doom for their children.

I'm all for better grades and educational excellence, but I'd still hate to see our children miss out on a season that's brief enough as it is. One minute we're turning on the air conditioner and biting into the first luscious berries of the season, and in an eyeblink, we're picking up yellow leaves from the lawn and retrieving jackets from the closet. To a child, summer is a magical space between the wool-wrapped gotta-do months of homework, curfews and extracurriculars. It's pools and playgrounds, family trips and camp friends, fireflies and dandelion fluff. It's even a time to be just plain bored - a concept kids hate, but which actually helps nurture their creativity and lets them unwind (especially if we resist the temptation to fill their boredom with TV and hand-helds).

Bad enough that across much of the country, two weeks before the unofficial end of summer, anthills lie unexamined and roller coasters wait impatiently for the weekend. Fewer ice-cream cones are being eaten, fewer sandcastles built. The smells of new-cut grass, salty surf and sunscreen are being replaced by more cold-weather aromas: Crayolas, gym floors, science-lab chemicals, cafeteria tacos.

Have a great school year, all you early birds - and I hope you'll spend at least a few of your post-dismissal-bell hours appreciating the warm-weather joys before they're gone for another year. Knowing that we're among the fortunate ones makes me appreciate these days even more, and I'll do my best to make my kids' final vacation days memorable.

(NOTE: The preceding opinion subject to change without notice, depending on how many times Momsperimenter hears the phrases "Stay out of my room!", "You stupidhead!" and "There's nothing to doooooo!" prior to September.)

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