How schools’ long summer breaks started, why some want the vacation cut short

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As summer approaches, schools across the country have ended the year or will soon be letting out for a long break. Most adults work during the summer, but thanks to outdated medical beliefs, the convergence of rural and urban calendars, and educational reforms, today's children enjoy summer vacation.

Schools didn't always have such long summer vacations, said Ken Gold, dean of education at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. In the early 19th century, schools in cities were typically open year-round, while schools in rural areas typically had two terms, one in winter and one in summer.

“At the end of the 19th century, it hasn't quite converged to what we have now, but the writing is on the wall,” he said.
Gold, author of “School's In: Summer Education and American Public Schools.”

How did the summer school holidays start?

School was a year-round event in colonial times, said James Pedersen, superintendent of schools and author of “Summer versus School: The Possibilities of the Year-Round School.” Even in 1841, some schools in Boston and Philadelphia held classes 240 to 250 days a year.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis, most K-12 public schools are only in session 180 days a year.

Although the length of the school year is relatively constant among states today, there were wide variations in the early 19th century. At the time, schools in cities were typically open year-round, while schools in rural areas typically had two terms, one in the winter and one in the summer, Gold said. Schools in rural areas had far fewer school days than those in cities.

Many people incorrectly believe the agricultural summer vacation myth that children took a break from school during the summer to help their parents in their fields and farms, Gold said. Although older students in rural areas took time off from school in the summer to help their parents, the heaviest work was during the spring planting and fall harvest seasons.

The shift to incorporate a long summer vacation into school calendars began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Pederson said.

As the summer heat hit the cities, people of means were leaving the cities for summer vacations in the mountains or at beach resorts, Gold said.

“It's not like these families were sending their kids to public schools in large numbers, but they were usually managing,” Gold said. “And so you start to kind of have a movement away from the summer because people aren't there, some of the people who matter and who make the decisions about the schools.”

Rural schools began to mimic the structure of the city school year, opening for longer periods while eliminating summer terms, Gold said.

Some of the changes came down to education reformers, who felt that summer terms were weaker academically and also thought that the school year in rural areas was too short. They also wanted teachers to spend time in training and develop programs for them in the summer.

Persistent medical notions on surtax dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries also played a role, Gold said. Although science moved away from this in the late 19th century, Gold said it became ingrained in the minds of many people that “overuse of the mind would lead to physical and mental weakness.

Why there are still long summer holidays

Schools use summer vacation to make repairs to buildings. Some school buildings are also not equipped with the air conditioning this would be necessary to keep the children in class during the summer months. About 36,000 schools nationwide need heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades, the Government Accountability Office found in a 2020 report, the most recent statistics available.

Joseph Allen, director of Harvard University's Healthy Buildings Program, told CBS News last year many schools were built to retain heat.

“The climate is changing rapidly and our buildings are not. Our buildings are not keeping up,” Allen said at the time.

Teachers may not be ready to give up summer vacation either. Part of the appeal of the profession, for some, is the way the calendar is structured each year, Steele said.

“So I could imagine that moving to a year-round model could exacerbate some recruitment and retention issues,” he said.

Outside of schools, there is also an economic barrier to ending or shortening summer vacation.

“Whole industries revolve around the summer holidays, think about it teenage employmentsummer camps, vacations, back-to-school sales, it's all there,” Pederson said. “It's really hard to shake it off.”

Pederson and Gold attributed the continued use of a long spring break to tradition.

“People's practices now of summer recreation and leisure are pretty powerful barriers, I think, to change,” Gold said.

David Hornak, who is the school's superintendent as well as the executive director of the National Year-round Education Association, said most parents and guardians went to school on a schedule traditional academic and want their children to have the same opportunities as them. it was in the summer

“A lot has changed over the last 130 years, except for the school calendar most widely used across the country,” Hornak said.

Will the summer holidays be shorter?

Summer holidays are already shorter in some schools across the country following a balanced calendar. The Hornak district has largely followed the balanced calendar model, formerly called the year-round model, for the past 30 years.

“Year-round education, or what we now call balanced calendar education, is based on the premise that the school year remains 180 school days, but that those 180 school days are used more efficiently during the whole calendar year”. Hornak said.

Most balanced schools start in early August, then take some time off in mid-autumn, at Thanksgiving, around Christmas and New Year's, in the middle of winter, in the middle of spring and around Memorial Day weekend. A traditional school's summer break is shortened, with days reassigned to allow free time at other times.

Michigan mom Kellie Flaminio's two children attend school in the Hornak district. Flaminio, who also works for the state Department of Education, said she looked for a district with balanced-calendar schools, even though she herself attended schools with more traditional academic calendars. Flaminio said both she and her husband work full-time, so the balanced schedule worked best for their schedules.

“Having to pay for daycare during the weeks the kids aren't in school, it was a little easier to have it more spread out versus this big chunk at once,” she said.

The mom said it's also been great for her son, now a sophomore, and her daughter, now a sixth-grader, who have never commented about feeling like they're missing out by not having a vacation. 12 week summer.

“Honestly, I think they're bored and ready to go back to school when we go,” he said.

About 4,000 schools in the U.S. follow a balanced calendar model, representing about 10 percent of the total student population, Hornak said. His organization advocates for county districts to use their 180 school days each year more efficiently.

According to Hornak, balanced calendars lead to increased student achievement and reduced summer learning loss. They can also help with staff retention because it gives teachers more frequent breaks.

These regular breaks also provide opportunities for schools to teach or re-teach concepts to students who need help. Advanced students may also be offered enrichment during these sessions.

Pederson said school year schedules don't have to be one size fits all; they can be individualized depending on the student to adapt to their level of ability. He also noted that schools are supposed to prepare children for future professions, and that giving them 10 to 12 weeks off for the summer makes that preparation more difficult.

“If we're trying to prepare them for what the future holds, it doesn't really fit, does it? Because no other profession has that amount of time,” he said.



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