Calendar creep could take away from practical education

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We are just two-thirds of the way through summer. There is still plenty of time for a good picnic, camping trip or fishing expedition, to garden and work in the yard. With recent rainfall, farmers might get another cutting of hay, the green chili harvest is about to begin (if it hasn’t already), and ranchers may be starting to wean their calves.

When I was a kid growing up in Catron County, this was the time to wrap up our 4-H projects and begin last-minute preparations for the county fair. It was also a chance for Daddy to squeeze out the last few weeks of work he could get from us before we started back to school and he lost his helpers for most of the next nine months. We were just beginning to think about buying school clothes and supplies …

Enter 2013. Schools have already started or are starting soon, and it’s only the beginning of August. I have seen articles and announcements from around the country of schools starting as early as Aug. 1. Wow!

I’m not the only one out there expressing shock or surprise at the timeline for kids starting back to school. No one seems to know how or why the schedule keeps changing, but most agree that “it gets earlier every year.” The question is who is deciding this — and why?

In the “good ol’ days,” school schedules were usually set around agricultural production in the region. Most schools, in the Western states at least, did not start until after Labor Day, because that was after most summer crops had been harvested, calves weaned, etc. It was also after most county fairs had been held. County fairs tended to mark the “end of summer” for us when I was growing up.

Unfortunately, neither agriculture nor any other industry seems to have a bearing on the school schedule anymore. I have come to understand that the federal government does not regulate the number of days our children must be in school; this is decided at the state level, and most states require about 180 days. It is apparently up to our school boards to determine the calendar.

It seems our school system has become focused on two things — those “all-important” mandated tests, and sports. So, even though the feds are not mandating the school calendar directly, the fact that schools now have testing requirements must surely have an impact on these schedules. Sports has become one of the only means to keep kids “busy” in a positive environment in the summers and during school, both in smaller districts where there are not a lot of other programs and in urban centers where there is a concentration of youth idling through the summer.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not opposed to the concept of grading our schools or measuring the results of education on our children, if done with some logic and practicality (which I’m not convinced it is now); nor am I opposed to encouraging participation in sports. Both are valuable components of a well-rounded education. But so is real-life experience that is gained from bucking hay, fixing fences, working in the family business, or delivering the newspaper.

I realize it is harder for our young adults to acquire jobs with changes in labor laws. There have even been attempts made to outlaw teenagers working on the family ranch or farm, which is ludicrous. There is so much of value to be learned in the work environment, and advantages of basic skills and knowledge learned in a job well done. During my career, I have been told on more than one occasion that I was hired over another candidate because I had grown up on a ranch, and the employer’s experience was that kids growing up in agriculture had a stronger work ethic and were usually self-starters.

Here are a few things I learned while working in the summers of my childhood:

1) Work ethic — I was taught to “do your best at whatever you do,” No matter if the job is slinging manure, leading the herd, making dinner for the crew or helping a neighbor with chores.

2) Efficiency — Time is precious; use it wisely. If you have to drive 63 miles to get groceries, you had best make sure that you get what you need, stock up and take care of any other errands while you are there. The same applied to a short trip back to the barn or house.

3) Adaptability and problem solving — You can’t always predict what will happen in a given situation; sometimes the unexpected happens. You have to be able to shift gears and roll with it. You might not always have the perfect tool to do a job. Sometimes, you have to create your own tools or develop your own solutions to a problem — on the spot. When a herd of cattle breaks through a fence and starts heading off into the wild blue, you better think quick and get them turned around! If the milk cow kicks the milk bucket over as you are just about finished milking, you just don’t have any milk that night, and may not have enough for your customers. If she starts to make a habit of it, you’ll figure out a means for distracting her so she stops wasting your time and effort, and destroying your food and profit.

4) Be a team player — You learn how to work together, to help your neighbors and do things their way when you’re at their place; you learn that you don’t always get to pick your teammates.

5) Applicable math and science — You figure out the cost and value of things, and you learn how a lot of things work, out of necessity. You learn the value of rain and snow, and how to tell when the storm is coming. You learn the difference between grass and a weed, about various insects.

6) Basic business practices — you learn how to keep records and track information.

You don’t have to grow up in agriculture to learn these values and skills; there are certainly other avenues in which to learn them, but all involve work — hands-on practical experience.

Our school system has gradually adapted over time with the urbanization of our populations. As small farms and ranches have disappeared, replaced by large-scale agriculture, and more people have moved to town to find work, children having summers off to work in the fields or on the ranch has become less and less important to the policy makers. And, of course, there are the labor laws made to protect our youth from being “enslaved” — something that occurred more in urban industrial settings than out in the field or on the range. Unfortunately, in states such as New Mexico, where even though the most dense population may be urban, a good number of school districts are still in rural agricultural areas, and the changes are having a negative impact.

It seems a lot of research has been done to study the impact of summer vacation on students’ ability to retain what they learn, and to continue to progress in their educational experiences. It also seems that the jury is still out on whether or not year-around education is a benefit — in general, not to mention in communities where our youth could benefit from the opportunity for hands-on experiences. There are also other factors to consider, such as the cost of operating the school throughout the year versus having a three-month hiatus during the hottest months of the year – especially in schools that are poorly equipped with air conditioning. There are also transportation costs and the costs of staffing the school throughout the longer school year. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see how expanding our school year can be efficient or effective.

Our agricultural sector has also evolved tremendously over the past few decades. Indeed, many consumers are mostly unaware of the process by which their food is grown, raised, processed, manufactured or otherwise “created.” It has become a big topic, in and of itself. One thing remains true – we all eat, and we all need farmers and ranchers to feed us — and the world. So, to deprive our children who grow up in agricultural communities the time to help on the farm or ranch because they need to prepare for the next test seems off base to me.

First, we need to educate our next generation of farmers and ranchers. This is vital to our survival as communities, states and indeed our nation. We do NOT want to be dependent (any more than we already are) on other countries for our food! But even if our young adults have a desire to go out in the world and become doctors, or mechanics, or massage therapists, or check out clerks at the grocery store, rather than remaining in agriculture, the important lessons they will learn by having summers to work on the ranch or in the local business are at least as beneficial as what they might learn in studying for the next nationally dictated test.

I say to educators, give our kids back the summer. To parents, I say, let them work on the ranch or the farm, or in the local business; let them have a project or two in 4-H and participate in the county fair as an active contestant, not just a bystander eating cotton candy and waiting to be entertained. We will have stronger, more well-rounded young adults who can adapt and contribute as a result.