School starts Monday at Face to Face Academy in St. Paul.

Yes, Monday, as in three days after July 4th and 57 before the traditional school-year start on the Tuesday after Labor Day.

A widespread shift in start dates is bringing an end to the times when kids all returned to school on the same day in Minnesota. Although the bulk of schools still begin classes the day after Labor Day, close to 40 districts and more than one-third of the state’s 150 charter schools start beforehand.

Some want to see kids do better on state tests. Some want to minimize academic backsliding by struggling students over the summer. Some say an earlier start allows for better quarter and semester breaks.

“We look at our state test dates as being like the Super Bowl. Adding more days in front — and we’re 10 more days — we feel gives us a better opportunity by having more time for instruction,” said Springfield Superintendent Keith Kottke. His district is one of 20-plus southwest Minnesota districts starting about two weeks before Labor Day.

Minneapolis schools are starting an extra week early, seeking more time before state testing the following spring. Edina is breaking with tradition to start a week earlier.

Earlier starts mean teachers get less time to recharge over the summer, although there are often short breaks during the school year. Families have a shorter window for summer vacations, especially if their kids play summer or fall sports. A shorter break means it’s harder for business owners to offer summer jobs to students, said Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association.

Reasons vary

Face to Face, an East Side charter high school, starts Monday, less than a month after last year’s class graduated. The school prefers that calendar because it’s serving a nontraditional body of students who haven’t succeeded in regular schools.

Kottke’s district is part of a consortium of 21 districts with some 15,000 students and is in its fifth year of starting two weeks early. The small Wabasha-Kellogg district on the Mississippi River starts the same day, and even smaller Browns Valley on the South Dakota border starts early, getting an exemption from the traditional post-Labor Day because many of the K-8 district’s students go across the border to early-starting Sisseton.

The reasons for early starts vary by district. The southwest consortium also uses the coordinated early start to help teachers in the region gather for better training opportunities than they could afford individually. With districts like Springfield having only one physics teacher, for example, it’s important for teachers to be able to mingle with peers across districts, Kottke said. Some cross-district teacher groups also spend time analyzing student data or assessing teaching techniques.

What parents like best, he said, is starting school at a time that allows the first quarter to break by the four-day Education Minnesota convention weekend in October. That also allows the first semester to end by the winter break, so students don’t have holiday homework hanging over them, Kottke said. And the district takes the Friday before Labor Day off, allowing families up to four days to attend the State Fair.

The mandate for a post-Labor Day school start has traditionally drawn strong support from the state’s resort industry. Although legislative efforts to overturn it haven’t succeeded, exceptions have been carved out. For example, a district that’s spending more than $400,000 on construction gets to start early under the argument that a project the following summer can start earlier.

Minneapolis hits that threshold easily, with an annual construction budget in the tens of millions of dollars. This year, so will the South St. Paul, Lake Benton and Jordan districts.

Twenty-nine districts get a waiver because they won Minnesota Department of Education approval for what are called “flexible learning year” programs, which generally use schoolhouses year-round or close to it, with only a short summer break. One such plan calls for 45 days in school, followed by 15 days off.

Charters go early often

In Wabasha-Kellogg, Superintendent Jim Freihammer admitted that changing the schedule may not improve learning overall, but he said starting 10 days earlier improves test scores. He added that about 80 percent of parents liked the early start in a district survey. And he still encourages students to take time off for the State Fair if they have a chance at 4-H competition.

Charter schools, freed by law from some state rules in the hope of encouraging innovation, are the biggest users of early starts. Those serving inner-city students say the shorter summer break helps their low-income students, since research has shown them to be more likely to lose ground over the summer. Some educators say the same is true for special education students.

“Those kids who are struggling, they don’t lose as much,” said Terry Moffatt, academic director at DaVinci Academy of Arts and Science, a year-round K-8 charter in Blaine. Classes ended June 19 and resume Aug. 11, and teachers have an even shorter break.

Some charter schools don’t want students to lose momentum toward graduation. Face to Face’s typical schedule is five weeks in school and one week off, with an early summer break that started June 12 and ends Monday.

“We really want to see them 12 months out of the year,” said Darius Husain, the school’s program director.

Minneapolis College Prep, the fledgling North Side charter high school, will restart Aug. 19 for new students and Aug. 22 for returning students. That takes commitment, said Principal James Barnett.

“Our kids are in school when they see their friends riding past on their bicycles for another two or three weeks,” he said.


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