Call the Early Start of School as Sumfall

One of the most asked questions I get as a teacher is why does school start so early in August instead of September.

Even though the change took place several years ago, as both a parent and a teacher I still am not used to summer ending with so much of the season remaining.

When Glendale children return to school on August 10 (August 8 next year), only 54 percent of summer days will have transpired leaving 46 percent to come as part of the fall semester.

We should rename summer vacation sprummer or at least rebrand the first semester as the Sumfall term.

Educators who work summer school only get two and a half weeks off before the new year restarts.   That is not enough time to recharge one’s batteries in a field as demanding as education. The same goes for students who attend summer school; they get three weeks off.   So their summer vacation is basically the length of winter break.

The main reason why districts began the August shift is for secondary school students to finish their semester before winter break, the notion that kids having two weeks off diminishes their retention level when upon their return final exams commence shortly thereafter.

Such thinking gets canceled out, however, since for the past few years Glendale students have had the whole week of Thanksgiving off, meaning they still end up returning for only a couple of weeks of class before finals.

Meanwhile, the elementary school students don’t need to start so early since they don’t take final exams making semester breaks meaningless.

Often overlooked is how hot it is in August, and that despite most classrooms having air conditioning, children need to play and exercise outside, something that frequently gets curtailed with heat advisories.

Some states such as Florida have passed laws to push back the start of school to late August. The New York and Chicago districts, number one and three in terms of size in the country, continue opening school the second week in September.

Over the years I have found few people in favor of an early August start date so why aren’t school districts listening?

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Update on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

As I commented last time, publishing the early version of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a mistake. Now that I have read the book, I can confirm that it was a monumental mistake.

There are parts of “Watchman” that exhibit a talented writer; however, the story is plotless and I found myself struggling through long-winded passages where essentially nothing happens. And then there’s the less than idyllic portrayal of Atticus—not the righteous father figure he epitomizes in “Mockingbird.”

What bothers me most is that by seeing how Lee originally intended to tell her story about racial issues in the South compared to the altered version two and a half years later in “Mockingbird,” it is clear that Lee’s editor in 1957 Tay Hohoff deserves much credit in reshaping the novel.

It goes to show how even in a field like writing which is viewed as the result of an individual’s work one can’t assume that the author did it alone. What “Watchman” proves is that Lee needed significant assistance.

Sales for “Watchman” have substantially slowed down since its initial release two weeks ago perhaps due to negative reviews and word of mouth.

Let’s hope this doesn’t ignite a trend of publishing early drafts of other great novels. I wouldn’t care to read a version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” where Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up still a miser, and ends with the death of Tiny Tim.

All School Children Need Civics Education for a Strong USA

The other day my son was practicing his guitar playing with a new music book and came upon Samuel Francis Smith’s “America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee),” you know the 1832 patriotic song that is not “America the Beautiful” and whose melody is the same as England’s “God Save the Queen”? That song, by the way, served as this country’s de facto national anthem for a century before “The Star Spangled Banner” garnered that title in 1931.

I asked him if he knew the song. He did not.

Along with other school children of his generation and older, the diminished music education in public schools over the past few decades accounts for a loss of a common musical history of this country.

Okay, so kids today are more likely to belt out Frozen’s “Let it Go” than “Home on the Range.” No big deal, right? However, with the loss of arts education there has also occurred a loss of civics education.

Schools years ago used to teach civics, “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works” per the Merriam-Webster website—in other words, what it means to be an American citizen and more important how to participate in the process.

The fact that only one out of every five 18- to 29-year-olds vote makes one ponder if the lack of civics education has anything to do with such a low turnout.

With the decades’ long focus on math and English skills, knowledge in other areas have been neglected. Most children earn high school diplomas without understanding how this country operates or why it matters. This lack of awareness ultimately atrophies into apathy.

We know about the achievement gap, the disparity between skills of whites and nonwhites. Call this one the American gap.

The New York Times reports that “students are woefully deficient in their understanding of how government works” but that “the study of American government and democratic values is making a comeback.” Unfortunately, that was published in 1987.

Recent efforts to resurrect civics courses and/or mandate that students take the U.S. Citizenship test have occurred in North Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, and Tennessee.

But with the Common Core curriculum in full swing, chances are that little will change. This is a mistake especially when considering that the majority of children in America’s public schools are from minority groups, the very groups who need to know civics since their interests would benefit the most from their involvement.

It is not so much the common math and common grammar that binds a people together; rather, it is the common culture.

One of the main charges of public schools used to be teaching children from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds the history of the United States as a way to bind their values, assisting them in assimilation.

With one-third of students in the L.A. Unified School District labeled as English Language Learners, meaning their parents are not from this country, isn’t it critical that these children learn about the land in which they live and will eventually prosper? The nation needs their full participation and not just them earning money and being consumers.

Knowing how government operates, knowing how individuals make up the government and do affect change are not insignificant factoids reserved for an obscure elective class.

Mandating civics courses in public schools would help unite a growing disjointed population. Just as students need to take health classes for their own personal well-being, they should take civics as part of their duty as citizens. We all benefit from an informed citizenry.

This week Gov. Brown signed a mandatory vaccination law because “immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.” Making students learn about their country as part of their education will protect the community as well.