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Making Sense of Va. School-Year Calendar

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, October 7, 2004; Page VA08

Dear Extra Credit:

Why does school start after Labor Day here, when other jurisdictions have already started?

Lynn Terhar

The state law generally requiring that schools begin after Labor Day is named after Paramount's Kings Dominion because the amusement and travel industries supported it. (Courtesy Of Paramount's Kings Dominion)

_____About This Feature_____
Figuring out what is going on in your schools is not always easy. The accounts children bring home, though colorful, may not be entirely accurate. Notes sent home get lost. Neighborhood chatter is unreliable.

To help, Post staff writer Jay Mathews, who has been covering schools for 22 years, will answer a reader question each week -- or maybe two or three if they are easy ones.

Please send your questions -- along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number -- to Extra Credit, The Washingtom Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. Or send e-mail to extracredit@washpost.com.

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President, Fairfax County

Council of PTAs

I suspect you already know the answer but want to cut down on the number of times you have to explain this odd bit of Virginiana.

It is not a throwback to a day when farms needed young people to finish their summer chores. The General Assembly voted in 1986 to rein in schools that might want to get started early, since some districts in the country were opening in August to increase instruction time and reduce the memory loss that students suffered over the long summer vacation.

The new law barred school boards from scheduling the first day of instruction before Labor Day. Virginia educators began to refer to this as the "Kings Dominion law," since its strongest backers were leaders of the hotel, recreation and resort industries who wanted families to vacation through August and early September. They also did not want to have their high school-age employers abandon them early.

Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax), who opposes the law, said many parents also like the post-Labor Day opening, and she sees little chance of its being overturned.

The original law allowed the state Board of Education to grant waivers "based on good cause," said Charles B. Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. The board quickly announced that it would grant waivers to "divisions that lose a lot of time to weather and divisions that share programs with divisions that lose a lot of time because of weather," Pyle said.

In 1998, with the state's Standards of Learning (SOL) tests putting pressure on superintendents and principals, the General Assembly amended the law to allow waivers for "experimental or innovative" programs, such as year-round school calendars.

Today, Pyle said, 79 of the state's 132 school districts have at least some schools opening before Labor Day. Fifty-seven have waivers because of weather, like the many snow days in the more mountainous parts of the state. But several, including Fairfax County, have taken advantage of the waiver for experimental or innovative programs.

Seven Fairfax elementary schools -- Annandale Terrace, Parklawn, Franconia, Glen Forest, Graham Road, Dogwood and Timber Lane -- are allowed to open before Labor Day. One county middle school, Glasgow, and two high schools, Falls Church and J.E.B. Stuart, are also on that list. A recent county PTA survey found 61 percent of parents preferred starting a week before Labor Day.

Stuart Principal Mel Riddile said the waiver allows him to schedule a full summer semester of classes, vital for a school where 70 percent of the students were born outside the United States and need additional time to catch up.

Falls Church High School Principal Janice Lloyd said her school got the waiver so it would have more time to prepare for the SOL tests in May. This year school started Aug. 23, two weeks early, and summer vacation will begin next year on June 8, also two weeks early.

Lloyd said during her three years as principal, she had heard some parents complain that the early start conflicts with the school schedules of their other children, but she does not think the school will return to opening the day after Labor Day. The extra time has helped raise the average SAT scores and SOL passing rates at Falls Church, she said.

And she notices nobody complains when summer vacation begins early. "We love that," she said.

Please send your questions -- along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number -- to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 4020 University Dr., Suite 220, Fairfax, Va. 22030. Or send e-mail to extracredit@washpost.com.

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