Students will start school two days earlier this year, before Labor Day weekend, and it’s got parents all worked up.
“There are hundreds like me in this town right now who are really mad at the way this came down,” Cindy Cohn told school board members at a joint meeting with the City Council Tuesday. “We’re really concerned for our children. If you could communicate, it would be helpful for all of us.”
All Laguna Beach schools will officially start on Thursday, Aug. 29, with teachers starting on Tuesday, Aug. 27. Classes will resume again on Tuesday, Sept. 3, after the Labor Day holiday. In exchange, students and teachers will get a week-long break at Thanksgiving. The school board approved the change on Jan. 22.
The district sent out a survey before Christmas last year asking parents for their opinion about starting school earlier. The questionnaire said the district was “considering a possible change.” The options were: “Yes, I would be agreeable to starting the school year on Thursday, Aug. 29, in order to give students a full week off at Thanksgiving” or “No, I would like the calendar to stay similar to this current school year. I prefer the school year to start after Labor Day with only Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of the Thanksgiving week off.”
Resident Paul Meyer said the district needs some help communicating more clearly. “I am shocked,” he said. “Had it been framed as ‘The district will be deciding whether or not to make the changes,’ I think you would have had a far greater level of interest.” He said the district needed to open public discussion prior to making a final decision. “It seems the preferences of the teachers are trumping the preferences of the parents,” he commented.
Superintendent Sherine Smith said she didn’t have the exact breakdown of the responses, only that it was a mixed bag with 43 percent of parents and 75 percent of the teachers responding.
“We have a pretty significant absence rate the week of Thanksgiving,” she told the council, describing the schedule change as a “pilot.”
Smith, a former teacher, said teachers dislike the disruption to instruction during the Thanksgiving week as some families take children out of school prior to the holiday.
Upping the start of the school year in Laguna also coincides with sports schedules with other schools. “In our athletics’ league, we actually start our competitions before the school year starts because those school districts begin school earlier,” said Smith. “So, many of our high school students are back and practicing and competing before the school year starts. A great number of families are impacted by that.” Capistrano Unified School District starts classes a week after Labor Day on Sept. 9, Newport-Mesa Unified starts on Sept. 3 and Irvine Unified starts on Sept. 5.
Other parents said the August opening date would disrupt family routines but also undermine local culture.
“We have certain traditions in Laguna,” said parent Tammy Keces. “As everybody else goes back to school, our families, our children finally get to relax and enjoy each other that last Labor Day weekend. My teenage children participate in the Festival of the Arts, the Sawdust Festival and lifeguarding and these lovely traditions in Laguna are now going to be lost.”
The Sawdust Festival employs about 30 high school students for 66 days every summer. Spokeswoman Cynthia Fung said the art exhibition deals with early exits by college students every year. “We fill the spots with whoever’s around,” she said. Sharbie Higuchi, spokeswoman for the Festival of Arts, said volunteers for the Pageant of the Masters’ living-art show come from across Southern California. “Most people are very loyal and it’s in the evening so it seems not to be a problem,” she said. “We just cope with it.”
Even though school will start two days before a major holiday weekend and many lifeguards are high school students, City Manager John Pietig said the city’s beaches won’t come up short-handed. “Marine Safety might adjust their staffing when school goes back into session, which is what we presently do, so we might adjust it a couple of days earlier,” he said. “But we did not think it would be a problem to come up with the staff we would need at that time.”
Keces told board members that they were missing “that little conversation piece that didn’t take place” with parents prior to deciding on the change. But board member Theresa O’Hare said the issue was on the board’s public agenda. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have any turn-out from the public on that discussion. So, pay attention to our calendars,” she said to a mix of verbal objections from the parents attending the meeting. Board member Jan Vickers reiterated that continuing feedback from parents on the schedule change will be encouraged.