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LAUSD considering a later start for school year

LAUSD will consider shifting from a mid-August start to after the Labor Day holiday. The school year would end in the latter part of June rather than early in that month.

For teacher Stuart Sellz, the slick tile floor of the auditorium at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth made for an odd but familiar place to conduct a recent physical education class.

Such coping strategies are common during the hottest months of the Los Angeles Unified School District calendar.

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On Tuesday, school board members will work through what, if anything, to do about it when they debate whether to change when school is in session, moving the academic year away from the intense heat of August to the somewhat cooler clime of June.

Under the proposal, the school year would shift from a mid-August start to after the Labor Day holiday, which is the first Monday in September. The year would end in the latter part of June rather than early in that month.

The issue arises now because planning already has begun for next year — and because board members who favor a later start have a shot at winning a majority on the seven-member Board of Education.

Among families on both sides, the topic provokes surprising and persistent passion.

Physical ed students at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth meet indoors because of the heat.
Physical ed students at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth meet indoors because of the heat. (Los Angeles Times)

School board members Scott Schmerelson, who represents the Chatsworth area, Richard Vladovic and George McKenna are in favor of making a change.

The other four board members have not announced positions, but the vote was nearly unanimous when the district switched to an August start in the fall of 2012.

The essential benefit of the August start is to allow high school students to finish their coursework before the winter break.

There's also a time advantage for students taking Advanced Placement courses, for which they can earn college credit. AP exams take place this year in the first two weeks of May. Students who start the school year sooner would have more time to prepare.

(There is no gain, one way or another, regarding the state's standardized testing. The window for giving these tests is based on how many days of instruction have taken place, not the calendar.)

Schmerelson talked about going back to the later, traditional start during a Sept. 1 walk through Lawrence Middle School, where he once served as principal.

"When I was here before we had air conditioning, I would be sitting in my office and stuck to the chair, absolutely stuck to the chair — terrible, terrible," he recalled.

Air conditioning was installed in the late 1990s, during Schmerelson's tenure, and, during this visit, it was effective against the 93-degree outside burn. Even the un-air-conditioned hallways were not especially oppressive.

But Sellz and other P.E. teachers had to be creative to avoid heat stress. His 50-plus students sat cross-legged in the back of the "multipurpose room" as Sellz gave instructions for a bonding/teamwork activity that involved pairs of students disentangling from intertwined ropes. Most of the space in the room was taken up with rows of metal folding chairs facing the small stage.

Other P.E. classes were using the un-air conditioned gym, which was hot, but cooler than outdoors.

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The district central office issues heat advisories when necessary and each affected school has instructions, which include notifying P.E. instructors, making sure water is available throughout the campus and providing assignments that allow staff members who must be outside to work in the shade.

Many district kitchens are not cooled, said Schmerelson, making them especially unpleasant on steamy days.

It could have been worse. On the three previous school days, the mercury reached 99, 100 and 97 degrees, according to weather.com. The record temperature for Chatsworth on Sept. 1 is 108 degrees.

Another service, intellicast.com, lists the average August temperature in Chatsworth at 96 degrees, making it the year's hottest month. June is the fourth hottest, with an average of 89 degrees, although June 3 reached a blistering 100 degrees this year.

Heat issues are especially acute in the San Fernando Valley, where Chatsworth is located.

"It's sometimes really hard to do sports because I get thirsty and tired," said Lawrence 6th grader Salvador Figueroa. "It's really hot."

The early start is driving up AC costs, according to the district, with the reduced June electricity bill more than offset by the increase in August, a difference averaging about $1.4 million over the last three years, when August was hotter than usual.

"My biggest concern is with family time," Schmerelson insisted. "People from all over the world and the United States come to California to enjoy the beaches and the entertainment that we have, especially during July and August. And the people who cannot partake of that are the actual students in L.A. Unified."

He added: "The great majority of parents in elementary school and middle school want a late start calendar."

Although parents have turned in thousands of petition signatures for a later start, it's not clear what the majority want.

Some observers cast the debate as something of a middle-class conflict. Many of these families favor a schedule that fits with timetables for summer camps across the country or that allows them to coordinate vacations. On the other side are families of many college-bound high school students, who want those extra study days before the AP tests.

While many working-class parents might have the same concerns, for some, getting their children into an air-conditioned classroom in August could be a plus in and of itself.

"It's very important to balance the extraordinarily complicated pressures on families and the needs of the incredibly diverse population in our district," said school board President Steve Zimmer. "Those needs may be very different depending on the economic circumstances of the family."

The heat is on from many directions.

A year ago, more than a thousand administrators who answered a survey overwhelmingly favored an August start. Many asserted an academic benefit.

Parent Peter Standish has come around to the new calendar, as better on academic and other grounds.

"I urge you to please NOT change the school calendar year once again," he wrote in a letter to the board. "Having children attend LAUSD schools for the past 10 years, our family has experienced both calendars...The current school calendar provides students a much needed, true mid-year break over the holiday period."

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