The days of starting school after Labor Day to allow kids to help on the farm are long gone.
Many schools in western Kentucky are starting classes during the first week of August. Paducah schools will begin classes next Monday, Aug. 4. The first day of classes at McCracken County and Graves County schools is Aug. 6, and Marshall County and Livingston County schools start classes on Aug. 7.
The prevalence of air conditioning in schools may have contributed to the shift of starting classes in mid-August rather than September. But starting the school year in the first days of August is mainly the result of a switch to a non-traditional calendar in many Kentucky school districts about 15 years ago.
Jennifer Smith, assistant superintendent and director of pupil personnel at Graves County Schools, said the move to a non-traditional calendar meant students had a two-week fall break, a three-week Christmas break, and then a two-week spring break, which meant a shorter summer.
Brian Bowland, director of pupil personnel at McCracken County Schools, said the non-traditional calendar was created in part to use the breaks for teacher training. He said those services were not used as much as school leaders had anticipated, so the breaks were shortened. Because the fall break was popular, one week in October is still built into the calendar.
"It has changed over time, but I think that everybody has grown accustomed to having that fall break, everyone enjoys it," he said.
Starting the school year early in August can make it hard on students who move to the district in late summer from out of state, where many schools start later. Transferring students then can start a few weeks behind in instruction, Bowland said.
State law requires districts to have 170 instructional days per school year, which must include at least 1,062 instructional hours. McCracken County Schools are scheduled to have 176 instructional days this year, with the anticipated last day of classes on May 21. Those six extra days provide a cushion for snow days.
Districts try to dismiss for summer by the end of May, Smith said, because some high school graduates go on to take summer college courses and some teachers take graduate courses in the summer. Thus, with the fall break, school must now generally start at the beginning of August.
"If you don't start early, it's almost impossible to get kids out (before Memorial Day)," she said.
At one time, standardized testing was completed during a specific timeframe at the end of the school year, which meant starting school earlier gave students more instructional time before tests.
However, Smith said now that most testing is done during the last 10 days of school, testing isn't as much of a determining factor in the school calendar as it once was. However, for high school students who take the ACT during mid-March, more instructional time early in the school year may be beneficial, Smith said.
Contact Lauren Duncan, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.