Friday Q&A: Why do Arizona schools start so early in the year?
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Welcome to the Friday Q&A, where we answer your questions about Arizona government and politics stuff you’ve noticed but never understood. We dive into the question and try to answer it in a succinct and fun, yet informative, way.
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Why does school start so early in the year in Arizona?
It’s now the end of the second week of school for many Arizona kids.
The start of school for Arizona kids brings similar questions each year: How are we already back in the classroom so soon? Didn’t summer just start?
Let’s first confirm our hunch: Yes, the truth actually aligns with the way we feel. Arizona does start school earlier than many states, and it starts earlier now than it did when many of you did when you attended Arizona schools as children. This is one of those “back in my day …” sayings that you could accurately use.
An analysis by the Pew Research Center in 2019 showed that Arizona joined other states in the South and Southwest in starting school in early to mid August, while schools in the upper Midwest, on the East Coast and in the Northwest tended to start in late August or even after Labor Day. The most common start date in the analysis was between Aug. 12 and 16, later than many Arizona schools.
There are a few reasons why the schedule has moved earlier here:
Summer learning loss
How do we do the things we do?
The state mandates a certain number of hours of instruction per year, which varies by grade. Fourth through eighth graders have the longest requirement, at 890 hours per year. Most districts achieve this in 180 days, said Mark Joraanstad, executive director of Arizona School Administrators. Some districts, mostly in rural areas, do four-day weeks and reach the required hours in 140 days.
Schools can set their own calendars. Many take a full week off in the spring and in the fall, plus two full weeks over the winter holidays, Joraanstad said. Schools end by Memorial Day, meaning instruction must start in August unless they want to make extremely long days that make after-school activities hard, he said.
Shortening the summer break can help ease potential learning loss that comes from a lengthy period away from the classroom. That plays into decisions by some districts, like Chandler and Vail, to shorten summer and provide longer breaks throughout the year.
Starting in early August also allows a full semester of work before the winter break, Joraanstad said. And the importance of standardized tests now places more emphasis on more teaching days before April, when the tests are given. School days “after the test” have seemed to diminish in importance, he said.
If you seem to recall starting school later in the 1990s in Arizona, that’s probably correct. Joraanstad said the schedules shifted earlier in the mid-to-late 1990s as test pressure increased.
Early starts could relate to getting kids in air-conditioned schools during the hottest days. Or they could align with agrarian roots in Arizona, which has an earlier growing season and needed kids helping in farms before June, Joraanstad said. The move away from farming culture here may play a role in school calendars shifting, Joraanstad said. (Edited to add: While farming may play some kind of role in school calendars, the oft-cited claim that the agrarian calendar dictated summer breaks isn’t really accurate, historians say.)
Chandler is one of the earliest
Pew’s research named Chandler Unified School District as the earliest start date in its analysis of more than 500 schools throughout the country.
School started on July 21 for Chandler Unified students this year. The district started moving its calendar in the mid-1990s, said Terry Locke, a district spokesperson.
A committee of Chandler citizens (Chandlerians? Chandlerites?) studied how a year-round calendar would affect the community, curriculum and budget, and made recommendations to the governing board. The board first allowed each school to choose its own calendar, then moved the full district to one calendar in 1997, Locke said. Chandler students get longer breaks in the fall and spring and a shortened summer.
So, we confirmed school does start earlier here than it did before and that it does in other places, and it’s not just our brains playing tricks on us!
It’s always nice to know new things. If you learned anything, tell your friends about our newsletter. Submit a question. We’ll do it again next week!