(August 22, 2005) Hear the audio version

If you see a school bus tooling around town today, it’s probably not a test run. That’s because school starts this week for thousands of Bay Area children. And I must say that my 15-year-old and her friends are having trouble mustering the enthusiasm for going back to five straight days of seven periods of academic classes while there’s still a month left of summer.

I realize that the real crises in American education are more along the lines of crumbling school buildings filled with too many kids with multiple academic, behavioral, and language challenges. We should be ashamed that the U.S. has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world. But in my household, the early start date has been the thundercloud over my daughter’s head since the summer finally began in mid-June. She never even had a chance to get bored! Unstructured time – daydreaming, exploring – has no place in the day planners of contemporary children, especially middle and high school students bound for college. With the school year now extended over ten full months, my child and her classmates will have precisely one weekend, after finals in January, without homework. Our district only pretends to pay attention to the alarm bells sounded by Stanford lecturer Denise Clark Pope’s Stressed-Out Students Project. A school calendar that begins two weeks before Labor Day is guaranteed to compound the stress.

All public schools in this No Child Left Untested era have become so obsessed with standardized testing in the spring that many feel the need to begin preparing their students early. In August. The school start date has been creeping up for the last several years, but finally, it’s reached the tipping point of annoyance among families who want their summers back. Tourism-friendly California legislators may want to take a look at laws already passed in four states that curb early back-to-school dates.

In the meantime, rather than enjoying the dog days of summer and going back on the more reasonable and traditional day after Labor Day, kids and teachers will be sweating it out in the classroom these weeks, trying not to dwell on opportunities missed and pleasures foregone in the incredible shrinking summer.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.