Op-Ed: Late School Start Means More Stress for High School Students

Friday, September 25, 2015

By Marianne Deal Stephens

In the first week of school, my 16-year old daughter had a chapter quiz and several major assignments due: two essays, two problem sets, and a writing assignment. Why? She — like hundreds of Shoreline students and thousands of Washington students — is enrolled in Advanced Placement “AP” classes and had summer homework.(1) Are AP teachers academic overlords? Is our district trying to prove something? No on both counts. These assignments are simply an attempt to make up for the calendar. Students have to start studying in the summer because they start the school year already behind much of the rest of the country. 

Advanced Placement courses, which have college level curriculum and optional exams, have become a nearly standard offering in American high schools.(2) Students choose if and how many AP courses to take. Students can potentially earn college credit, and consequently save on college tuition, depending on exam scores. These exams are given the first two weeks of May — May 2-6 and May 9-13 in 2016 — in all locations, no matter when particular districts begin the year. So, a student taking AP Calculus in West Lafayette, Indiana has five weeks more to learn the material for the exam than a student in Shoreline, Washington. 

National Start Dates
In this example, Indiana is not the exception: Washington is. In my own unscientific look at start dates around the country and on this CNN map, the Northwest and Northeast appear to be “after Labor Day no matter when it falls” holdouts, with a few exceptions in the Midwest. 

Source:  Back to School:  Why August is the New September, CNN, August 5, 2015. 

State Start Dates
In Washington, most school districts (77%) started before Labor Day, while Shoreline and the rest (23%) started after the holiday.(3)  If we created a map of Washington school district start dates, Eastern Washington would on average have earlier start dates than Western Washington. 

Local Start Dates
Of the three Districts that border Shoreline, Edmonds and Seattle share the September 9 start date (scheduled, not actual in Seattle’s case) while Northshore started September 2. Puget Sound has a similar mix of start dates, with schools on the east side of Lake Washington tending to start September 1, and schools on the Seattle side tending to start September 8 or 9. 

The AP Race
While many — and perhaps most — American AP students have 32-35 weeks to prepare, Shoreline and many other Washington students have 30 weeks, and 10 of those weeks are partial, with one or more days off. It is as if we ask our students to run a marathon on the same course as their national peers, but with a staggered start. Our students start last and have to cover the same distance and terrain, only faster. 

Not Only AP Students
Negative ramifications of the late start also affect students who: play fall sports; plan to apply to college; and intend to work in the summer. If we created a Venn diagram — with the overlapping circles — of these groups, a majority of Shoreline high school students would be included in at least one circle, and some in all four. 

Athletes, College-Bound Students, and Working Students
High school athletes begin practices well before school starts, with football players suiting up August 19 and other athletes starting August 24 this year. In order for the athletes to compete (WIAA  rules require football players to have 12 practices and athletes in other sports to have 10 before competition), those families cannot go on vacation at the end of August or beginning of September. It is summer yet not summer, school yet not school. 

Seniors applying to colleges have a stressful year ahead of them, filled not only with the usual complement of classes and activities, but with college essays, applications, deadlines, possible trips, and other components of the pre-college process. Because there is a lot to do, the Common Application, used by more than 600 colleges, opens August 1. However, in Shoreline and surrounding districts, there isn’t anyone to help students with college applications until much later. 

In Shoreline, our counselors begin working three weeks before school starts (August 20 this year), yet they are immediately inundated with high school schedule requests. The contracts of our College and Career Readiness Counselors do not begin until the day before school starts (September 8 this year), a full five weeks after the Common Application has opened. If seniors want to get a head start, they have to work independently in the summer and hope that school staff and systems are ready to supply the school portions of college applications. Some scholarship deadlines have already passed, and early application deadlines start October 15

It is a credit to Shoreline and Washington educators that students here do as well as they do with considerably less time to learn content.(4) This situation of maintaining quality despite having considerably less time parallels how Washington manages to have, on average, well-performing schools even with inadequate funding .(5) My conclusion — that teachers’ expertise routinely overcomes deficits of time and money — is not scientific, yet should not seem a stretch to anyone intimately familiar with our schools.  

Six Week Lull
By the end of April, our AP teachers have managed to cram an entire year’s content into 30 weeks. Following AP exams the first two weeks of May, the hundreds of students in Shoreline AP classes still have six weeks left in school after they have covered the curriculum. Many of our dedicated AP teachers use those weeks for activities like the Physics Olympics (AP Physics), or a student-choice Passion Project (AP World History). Some AP classes do not do much, yet almost nobody complains: the relative idleness provides a well-deserved break. Even though these six weeks can be used for learning or recovery, I would think that teachers and students would rather have the buildup be not quite so crazy and the break after AP exams be not quite so long. 

Latest End Date
Shoreline’s “likely last day of school” is June 24. This date also is weeks later than most of the rest of the country, and even though Shoreline shares the September 9 start date with many other state districts, only two districts in Washington — Shoreline and Auburn — have such a late scheduled end date.(6) As the last in the state to get out of school, our high school students have a disadvantage when seeking summer employment.  

Move the Start Date—Slightly 
All of these pressures and consequences could be partially eased by a calendar change. A drastic change would not work; in some areas with early start dates, “take back our summer” movements lobby for later dates.(7) Even a minor change of starting one or two weeks earlier would: lighten the summer homework load; spread out the AP workload; increase the overlap of student-athletes’ academic and athletic calendars; increase staff readiness for and reduce stress for college-bound students; and give teen job seekers more opportunities. Students in AP courses could potentially do better on AP exams, with the possibilities of college credit and saved college tuition more within reach.(8) These and better summer employment opportunities would be lasting, positive effects for a majority of our high school students. 

Shoreline’s Role
Instead of following surrounding districts, Shoreline should lead surrounding districts. I realize that calendar details are worked out during contract bargaining and are constrained by WIAA (athletic) and OSPI (academic and state) regulations. It may be too late for a change in the near future, but perhaps we can change priorities now. Concrete, lasting consequences should take precedence over factors such as “we like to take vacations in late summer”—a major reason circulated in the Shoreline community during a previous late start (September 12, 2011). The district likes to tout our high schools’ achievements: our kids’ AP scores and participation recently got the district on the AP Honor Roll.(9) It is a contradiction to simultaneously promote our kids’ achievement and also make that achievement more difficult. 

If we are truly serious about preparing our young adults for the world and minimizing teen stress, then we should respect the calendar’s effect on our students and student-athletes and make this relatively innocuous change. Families’ Labor Day traditions may be affected, but once families hear about or experience the effects of a late start school year on their high school students, the prospect of a more reasonable workload (including more sleep) and better opportunities will outweigh the inconvenience of shifting a vacation. 

As the Seattle Teachers’ Strike stretched over several days, my daughter and I wondered about its effect on AP students and teachers. Then, the irony of our concern struck us: students and educators who live elsewhere must look at our students, barely out of the starting blocks, with the same sentiment. 

Best of luck to our educators and students; the race is on!

1. In 2013, 21,583 Washington State high school graduates left high school having taken at least one AP Exam. 10th Annual AP Report, Washington Supplement
2. In 2013, over 1 million U.S. public high school graduates, 33.2% of the of total public high school graduates,  took at least one AP Exam. College Board News Release 2.11.14  and 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation.  

3. In Washington, 35 districts, or 12%, started the week of August 24-28; 186 districts, 64.3%, started the school year the week of August 31; 67 districts, 23%, started the week of September 8-11. Washington has 295 districts; 289 reported data to the OSPI.  

4. Washington AP performance is slightly better than U.S. averages. 

5. Washington school performance exceeds national averages in average scale scores as shown by the Nation’s Report Card, National Center for Education Statistics.   . However, once analyses take into account Washington’s per pupil funding (and, in some reports, the relatively high pupil-teacher ratios), quality assessments fall. Education Week’s Quality Counts 2015

6. While 67 districts (23%) started the school year the same week as Shoreline, only 11 districts, or 3.8%, anticipate finishing the school year the week of June 20-24. Shoreline has more days off during the school year than most districts. The Seattle Teachers’ strike may extend the Seattle academic calendar.  

8. Colleges’ AP credit policies vary. Look up particular policies on AP Credit Policy Search.   

Corrected city name 09-26-2015


Anonymous,  September 27, 2015 at 8:39 AM  

Let's eliminate the unnecessary "midwinter break."

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