If you’ve ever been stuck in a public school in late June, you know that not much happens. At elementary schools, the hours fill with long recesses and end-of-year celebrations. At high schools, they dwindle away in exams and cleanup. Buildings without air conditioning ensure sweat and suffering all around.
And when the legendary winter of 2015 comes to its inevitable end, such will be the fate of many children in Massachusetts — at least if the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has its way. In early February, Commissioner Mitchell Chester reiterated the state policy that “all days lost to health, weather, or safety emergencies between the first day of the school year and March 31 must be made up by rescheduling full school days to ensure a 180-day school year.” On February 13, he underscored his position, asserting that the department did not plan to let the Commonwealth’s schools out of their 180-day obligation with a statewide waiver.
In Massachusetts, school districts usually create their calendars by budgeting those 180 days and then adding five more to cover snow days. This means that for most of the year the last day of school remains in flux. Parents tempt fate if they plan a vacation or summer camp departure before the 185th day. Teachers are certain of little except that by the 185th day they will be closing up their classrooms, handing in their keys, and walking out the door.
But what happens when there are more than five snow days? As I write this, Boston and Lowell have had eight; Worcester and Somerville nine; Weymouth High School and all Quincy schools 11. And there’s no guarantee there won’t be more snow ahead.
On March 13, the commissioner finally acknowledged that “some districts, even with their best efforts, will be unable to reschedule all of the missed days” and said that he “is prepared to grant waivers” for individual districts. That came after he had rejected initial requests from Braintree (nine days) and Quincy, two districts now expected to be in session until the end of June. Even as Weymouth submitted a request, it made plans to have school on three Saturdays and Good Friday.
So far, other communities are obediently making plans to make up the days they lost. After starting September 2, Greater Lawrence Technical School has pushed its last day from June 15 to June 26. Boston had school on Evacuation Day and extended the year to June 30. In Brookline, Superintendent Bill Lupini polled his community about whether it would prefer to have school on Good Friday, during April vacation, or on Saturdays. He is waiting to decide, wary, like other officials who continue to mull their options, of more snow causing further changes.
But the real question is: Why? Popular mythology holds that today’s long summer vacation evolved out of our agricultural past. But, in fact, says Kenneth Gold, author of School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools, the modern school year emerged out of the movement to standardize American education in the 19th century. Back then, rural states often had only a few months of school in summer and winter, so young people could plant and harvest in spring and fall, while cities kept schools open as long as possible (New York had 245 days in 1842) to catch itinerant students whenever they could. So where did 180 days come from? It’s simply where they met in the middle. The September-to-June school year became tradition, says Gold, dean of education at the College of Staten Island. “It was not established with learning goals in mind.”
Although 180 is no magic number, there is currently a vigorous and reasonable debate about whether American students need more time in class. But more time on Saturdays, when they have sports and jobs? More time during April vacation, when many students will be away on family vacations, college visits, and trips to see relatives? More time in June, when we’ve already seen what happens? Do we really think meaningful learning will occur in any of these situations?
So what’s a snowed-in commissioner of education to do? So far, it’s stick to his guns, come hell or high snowdrifts.
But he still has time to change his mind and issue a statewide waiver, which is within his power under “extraordinary circumstances,” like, say, the snowiest winter on record. Chester could — and should — let every district go to school till its 185th day and then go home. The end of June is made for swimming pools, summer jobs, and snow cones, not school.
WHAT ABOUT NEXT YEAR?
A new survey asked 400 Massachusetts superintendents and school committee members for the calendar alternatives they’d be most (and least) willing to entertain for 2015-16:
Most willing to consider:
> Move to a pre-Labor Day start
> Consolidate February and April vacations into a single week
> Eliminate current religious or cultural holidays
Least willing to consider:
> Have school on Saturday
> Shorten Christmas/winter break
> Extend school year in June
Sources: Massachusetts Association of School Committees and Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly described Boston’s plans. Boston had school on Evacuation Day and extended the year to June 30.