Blame testing for students' shorter summer

When you think of Labor Day weekend, you think back-to-school shopping, family road trips and lazy afternoon barbecuing, right?

Try English essays and cramming for tests.

The Labor Day weekend was once the last chance to celebrate before the start of a new school year, but students in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and across the country have found the school year creeping ever earlier.

In Patterson, the first day of the "fall" semester is Aug. 9. Ceres, Riverbank and Oakdale schools started in mid-August. All 25 county school districts had classes under way before the three-day break began.

"It's too hot; it's too early. They need three months off," said 72-year-old Bill Martin, who was shuttling his grandchildren from Ceres and Modesto schools Tuesday afternoon. "I think they should start after Labor Day. It just doesn't make sense."

These days, educators feel more pressure to cram instruction into the months before state standardized testing in the spring and to finish high school semester finals before the start of winter break. Teachers and students stress over state accountability tests, Advanced Placement tests and high school exit exams toward the end of the year.

"I think some school districts would have more days of teaching, if possible, prior to the test," said county Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon. "That's what, unfortunately, we're all accountable to in the end. If you can get those students earlier and more regularly, you're better off."

Some districts, such as Ceres, decided to shrink summer vacation, have two weeks off around Christmas and add a "ski week" in February to meet the state minimum of 180 days of school.

For 13-year-old Megan Braverman, the extra vacation days during the year are a trade-off she'll accept.

"It doesn't make the summer as bad," said Megan, an eighth-grader at Mae Hensley Junior High in Ceres.

"Over the summer we get restless, because we're not with our friends as much," added classmate Timothy Cardelli.

Those Ceres students said they never got used to having a three-month summer vacation in the first place. Ceres elementary schools operated on year-round schedules to ease overcrowding until new schools were opened in 2005.

Changnon said year-round schools may help counteract "brain drain," when students forget material over a long vacation, forcing teachers to spend more time reviewing at the beginning of the year.

Schools in the Sylvan Union, Turlock Unified and Modesto City Schools districts now have students on single-track, year-round schedules.

"They're trying to reduce what people, in their mind, think of as a three-month summer vacation," Changnon said. "They're trying to reduce that so there's not so much down time in terms of studies for the students."

Mae Hensley seventh-grader Rita Sandhu wasn't buying it.

"It's summer vacation and you're supposed to get back in school at the end of summer," the leadership student said. "Right now, we're in summer and we're in school."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.