SAKS — For Crystal Sparks, the first day of school is the best day of the year.
The Saks Elementary School principal spent her Thursday morning putting up decorations and visiting classrooms, making sure everything is perfect for when students come back. She’s been at Saks Elementary almost every day since the beginning of July, and she said the itch to get back into the school year is becoming overwhelming.
“All the kids I see, they’re ready to go back to school,” Sparks said. “I know I’m ready. It’s no fun sitting in an empty school.”
Sparks will welcome students back next week, which is a week later than a lot of schools in Alabama. Legislation passed in 2012 that required public schools in the state to start no more than two weeks prior to Labor Day expired this year, meaning many school districts have returned to an earlier schedule.
That legislation was sound, said state Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, one of the bill’s sponsors, and abandoning its provisions so soon is detrimental to schools and the Alabama economy.
“It is crazy that we allowed this bill to expire before we even took time to study the impact of a later school start date,” Ford wrote in a letter on behalf of the Democrats in the Alabama House of Representatives. “The reality is that longer summers are better for businesses, families and most importantly, the education of our children.”
According to Ford, longer summers allow students more time to participate in camps and summer learning activity, while allowing for more vacation opportunities that can boost the economy.
However, some education groups have taken Ford’s assessment to task, saying the representative’s summer ideals aren’t rooted in reality.
“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” said Thomas Rains, the policy director for the A+ Education Partnership, a nonprofit organization that advocates for student education. “I think our focus should be more on student learning. We’ve kind of finagled that around the economy, and we’ve got it backwards.”
Rains points to a February memorandum from the Alabama Legislative Fiscal Office that cites the legislation as having virtually no impact on the economy.
Rains said the ideas of longer summers appeal to a time when the school year was shorter, but that research shows longer summers often hurt students who live in poverty, which is about 59 percent of Alabama public school’s population, he said. Without access to summer learning activities, the students who spend more time outside the classroom walls often fall behind the curve in assessment.
“It used to be the way we do it, but we’re learning that wasn’t always so great the way we used to do it,” Rains said. “And longer summers don’t help in student achievement.”
That’s more or less the same conclusions reached by the Baltimore-based National Summer Learning Organization, which advocates for more federal money for summer learning activities. The organization points to statistics that show a loss of reading comprehension and lower standardized scores after summer breaks, and those trends are especially prevalent in students living at or below the poverty level.
Many Calhoun County students fall in that category. About 61 percent of students in Calhoun County Schools qualify for free and reduced lunch. And while a summer feeding program extends free lunch into the summer, the program is limited to select schools.
There’s also just the idea of coming to a warm, welcoming place every day, said Katie Fleming, a first-grade teacher at Saks, who was spending her Thursday morning putting the finishing touches on her classroom.
“We want to be a welcoming place, like a home away from home,” Fleming said. “I think kids want to come to school. I’m sure a lot of them are bored.”
Despite that, Calhoun County Schools haven’t adjusted the calendar this year. Holly Box, an administrator for Calhoun County Schools, said classes will begin Aug. 14, just like they did last year, and are scheduled to end before Memorial Day. Box said teachers ultimately decide on the schedule through a committee that has representation from each school in the district. The calendar for the 2014-15 year is almost identical to the previous school year, she said.
“It’s a lot different from when I was growing up,” Box said Thursday, noting that even starting a week later than most schools still represents a huge shift from when Alabama schools didn’t have 175 mandated days, and school typically began after Labor Day.
“Ultimately, hopefully the adjustments we’re making are in the best interest of the students and the teachers,” she said.