Sunday, August 29, 2010

School's Out - but for how long?

This week, we take a look at the American school summer break:


Like most mothers, I love my children. I do. Honest. (OK, the one that's arguing (via Facebook messages) about a Mohawk hairdo for school is trying my patience but whatever.) Anyway, as I was saying, I love my kids - but three months off in the summer? Seriously?

For our non US readers, most American schools are closed for three whole calendar months during the summer. In the south, they tend to break up earlier (some time in May) and go back in August, although our school (like many in the mid-west) let out on June 8th and goes back September 10th. Aarrgghh! Even for the most maternal of us, that's a lot of child-time. It's also a bit ironic given that many working adults get a paltry two or three weeks off for the entire year.

Apparently it harkens back to the days when children were expected to help on the farm and thus were needed for the summer, but the last time I checked, that wasn't the case in most communities these days. Many schools here get scant time off during the year, compared with schools in England. We don't get a fall/autumn half term and only have a week at Easter. I would far rather have my kids under my feet around the house at various times during the year than a quarter of the year all in one go.

The long summer off isn't just exhausting, it's inconvenient and downright expensive for many families. Where both parents work, it means that children inevitably get booked into the infamous "summer camp", (which incidentally, doesn't always involve tents or indeed, overnights sleeps anywhere.) Although some cities run heavily subsidised programs, the spots are limited and you end up paying through the nose for somewhere to park your child for a few weeks.

Granted, the British school hols are on the short side, although from the age of 11 I got 9 weeks which was just about perfect. I think the two school systems should have a chat and come up with something half way between the two models. ( 9 weeks in the summer, 2 weeks at Xmas and Easter and little breaks in between.)



The summer school holidays are coming to an end here in Britain, and if it seems as if they have just begun, that is because they have.

Compared to their colonial cousins, British school kids get a paltry amount of time off for the summer. Granted, they make up for it during the rest of the year—the British school year seems to consist of a few weeks of classes, a few weeks off, a few weeks of classes, etc. I’m sure there must be some advantage to this system, but I can’t find any.

In the States, when school is on, it’s ON. They call it the school year because that’s what you do during it—School. In September and October you’re settling into your new life (you used to be a 5th Grader, now you’re a 6th Grader, and at the top of the Elementary School food chain) and making do with Columbus Day and Halloween for diversion. In November you look forward to the mini-break (not to mention the turkey) at Thanksgiving and then it’s Christmas, with a full week off. Spring is its own reward and by the time the flowers are out you are already anticipating the coming of summer. And finally, in the second week of June, after sitting in sweltering classrooms taking end-of-school tests for five days, you are free.

There is nothing to compare that day to, when you step out of school and see the whole of the sweet, sunny, sultry summer unfolding in front of you.

In summer, my friends as I would swim at the creek, ride our bikes, camp out in the woods or just enjoy lazing around in the hot, humid afternoons. We had no Internet, X-Box, iPods, but we were never bored.

I consider myself especially fortunate, as this long and languid period, for me, was punctuated by the Chatham Fair—the annual agricultural event held over the Labor Day weekend. We would go to the fair, look at the animals and exhibits, eat fried dough, cotton candy, candies apples, and then head for the main event—the rides. The Tilt-A-Whirl, the Ferris Wheel, the Scrambler, the Octopus—we would ride them all, repeatedly. Mostly without throwing up.

There would be car rallies, horse races and some has-been celebrity would put on a show in the grand stand and we would notice, as dusk settled around us, an autumnal chill in the air. Then the fair would pack up and leave town. We would have the next day—the first Tuesday in September—to find what clothes still fit us, get new hand-me-downs and steel ourselves for the coming year, where we would be back on the bottom of the food chain in the Junior High School.

Summer, to me back then, was a marvellous and magical time. I can’t imagine it being just a few short weeks off between semesters.

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  1. I am jealous of my sister in the UK when she has more time off during the school year than I do, but her school year is 190 days as opposed to 180 here in the US. The long summer really is too long - but seeing as most schools don't have air-conditioning, except in the administrative offices, school in the hot summer would be pointless. The kids do love 'camp'. Given how little 'recess' time they are allowed during the school day compared to at school in the UK, I see it as a great time for them to catch up on their social skills - playing with friends and negotiating rules for games.

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  3. Just a note for people reading Mike's comment, what grades are in what school (and what we call them) varies a lot from state to state and even WITHIN states.

    In NYC, elementary school runs from grades K - 5 (kindergarten is one year, you have to be 5 by December 31st of that year, but in most parts of the city you can optionally go to pre-k as well which is the year BEFORE kindergarten), and then intermediate school (also known as middle school or junior high school - and those terms are more or less interchangeable*) is 6 - 8 (except that some schools run 6 - 9 instead), and then high school is grades 9 - 12.

    But it's not unusual to find private or parochial schools that run 1 - 8 instead.

    And outside the city, I've heard of school districts that run K - 4, 5 - 8, 9 - 12, or that run K - 2, 3 - 5, 6 - 8, 9 - 12, or all SORTS of weird combinations.

    *The reason we have multiple terms for that school between elementary school and high school is because *theoretically* they refer to different styles of teaching. Junior High School was originally just like high school, but for younger kids - you go from class to class on your own schedule, and you aren't in the same class with the same kids all the time. The middle school model was originally a bridge between high school and elementary school - you go from class to class, but with the SAME kids (so you have math and English and Spanish all with the same homeroom, instead of maybe being in advanced math and normal English and beginner Spanish), and there's supposed to be some level of interdisciplinary teaching.

    Most people don't know this, though, and even schools are likely to use the terms interchangeably nowadays.

  4. I have to say I prefer the English system. The long summer in the US is rather overwhelming, and I know that teachers say they have to spend a long time recapping the work of the previous grade, because kids have forgotten so much over the summer.

    I can see why Mike says British kids get "a paltry amount of time off" in the summer, but it doesn't feel like it to them. It feels like a long holiday stretching away, just as he describes it did in his own childhood. And there are plenty of parents who definitely wouldn't recognise the word "paltry" in this context! It makes me laugh now, when British mums complain to me that they don't know what to do with their kids for 6 whole weeks.

    I can see how the English system seems very start-stop to Americans, but I like that. The two school terms here seem relentless. Kids get tired, and it feels like there's nothing to look forward to (well, Hallowe'en, Thanksgiving, Christmas, I suppose...) In England, there's always a break round the next corner. If your child is struggling, you can always say "only x weeks to the next holiday".

    We've also found it very limiting in terms of travel. I'd love to have seen more of the US, but (apart from the cost) there just isn't the opportunity. We don't want to travel at Christmas, Thanksgiving isn't really long enough, so Spring Break is the only opportunity in the year. I loved using half term breaks to go on trips in the UK, eg to see family.

    Having said all that, it does suit us to have long summers, as it means we can have a long trip to the UK and make the air fare worthwhile.

  5. @Iota - I agree that the long summer brak is great for travelling to the UK with kids, although when we get there, everyone else is often still at school. It takes a lot of planning to actually see people because as soon as the British schools are out, everyone rushes off on holiday.
    Like I said - 9 weeks is about right.
    I do miss half terms though.

    Conuly - thanks for that info. I've noticed even in the Chicago area, the schools don't all follow the same format.

  6. Toni, I agree that in the U.S. the summer break is way too long. Our kids had three months off this summer and it gets to be too much. The children get lazy and listless making it even more difficult to get them going for the new year. Worse yet, our school systems have what I think is an inordinate amount of days off during the school year. Both make it very difficult for working parents.

  7. I much prefer the British system. We're in week 10 I think of the summer vacation and currently we all want to kill one another. The boys are more than ready to return to school.

    Also, come next week, I know we won't have a really good break until next summer. We only get a week at Christmas, a week at Easter and that's it. It's awful.

  8. The Canadian school system is much like the British one. I'm in BC and my kids get out the end of June and go back to school on Sept 7. They get a a week off at Christmas and two week March spring break although the weather is usually crappy in March so two weeks off is too long. It's cold and rainy and the kids end up indoors the entire time. But we are in the minority in BC to get a two week spring break.

  9. Not being a parent I look back at school holidays with fondness. The summer break seemed long and lazy and we had plenty of opportunity to have adventures and in true rose tinted spectacle form the summers were always good.
    So they weren't as long as they get in the USA. But we had added bonuses. I always had my birthday off during the spring half term break. Easter was long enough to have a visit to family in Scotland. So Mike I know you loved your Creek and spending days lazying around it . I still think I got the better deal. But I'm sure we will continue having this rose tinted debate

  10. Oh gosh, I'm never going to get my head round the US education system then, if they don't all do it the same way anyway...

    I've not experienced the US system, but the lack of breaks throughout the year sounds hard going. My son's had 8 weeks off this summer, and he's ready to go back as he's missed his friends. Not sure I'm ready to go back to getting up at 6.30 for the school run though.

  11. I found your site through Saltaire Daily Photo and I just loved your blog.
    I love your style of eloquent and quirky.
    Love the idea of "both sides of the pond..both sides of the issue".

    Wishing you well.


  12. After doing the UK system I must say that 6 weeks is about I can handle for summer break. Right now I am sitting here white knuckling it until tomorrow morning when they start school! I swear I just heard a choir of angels sing.

  13. I guess I still look at summer from a child's perspective, even though I now have three grown children, and to me it was, and remains, magic. I suppose if, as a child, I had nothing to look forward to than X-Box and an imagination that began and ended with Facebook and the TV remote, I might consider three months at home with no school to be a jail sentence. And with kids just sitting like lumps on the couch or huddled in their rooms getting up to God-knows-what on the Internet, I might, as a parent, be ready to send them back after week two, as well.

    Kids, inside, in summer?!?


    The world appears to have moved on, and it has left me behind.

    But I like it here.

  14. In PA, my kids had 9 weeks, so not as long as some, longer than others. They were definitely ready to go back after 8 weeks.

    We'd also prefer to have a longer Christmas and spring break - with snow make up days, one year they had one day for spring break! So Jan 2nd to June 14 with no break was rough!

  15. I think somewhere between the two would be ideal. In private schools in Britain, holidays tend to be a bit longer - normally eight weeks insetad of six - and this always seemed an incredibly long time to me as a teenager. The US holidays are definitely too long - essentially it means summer camp becomes like a fourth term, except you have to pay for it.

  16. I've long thought that the British school calendar is one of two key contributors in keeping women out of the workplace (the other being the lack of school buses and associated need for the "school run") in that there is no conceivable easy way for women to hold down a serious career when they have kids on breaks for a week here and two weeks there throughout the entire year. At least with the long break in the summer my American mother could plan what to do with me for that entire chunk of time and still have a serious career.

  17. NFAH: Not being a working mum, I did not feel qualified to comment on that subject, but it has not escaped my notice that the on-again, off-again school year makes it very hard for the working mums in my office.

    And what's the second "key contributor"? Or is it so obvious ("MEN!") that I shouldn't need to ask ;)

  18. Employment of women: according to the table at the percentage of women employed is identical in the US and the UK (89.6%, 2005 figures).

    This does not, therefore, lend any support to NFAH's view.


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