Back to school: Why August is the new September

Story highlights

  • School starts in August or even July for many schools
  • Educators say test prep and learning patterns are improved by earlier start dates

Daphne Sashin is a producer with the CNN social discovery team. Reach her on Twitter @dsashin.

(CNN)First came the summer camp promotion from the YMCA of Metro Atlanta, crashing like a brick into my inbox June 17.

"Six more weeks of summer," the subject line taunted. "Make 'em fun!"
Didn't the fine people at the YMCA know that the summer solstice had not yet arrived? And still, here they were, telling me and my 4-year-old that we had only six more weeks of summer?!
    But, going by the school calendar, they were right. My son starts pre-kindergarten today at our neighborhood school. That's right -- August 5. It's the same for children in cities and towns across the country, including in Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Indianapolis and Monterey, California. Lots of schools join them the following week and all throughout August.
    The dreaded email.
    We're not smashing any records here. In Hawaii and parts of Indiana and Arizona, kids have been in class since late July.
    Having grown up in New England, where I was still writing letters home from summer camp in late August, I was perplexed and awash in nostalgia-fueled angst. What happened to school starting after Labor Day?
    It turns out a lot of parents have the same question, and there are answers.
    But first, a short history of school calendars: Kids didn't always have summers off. In fact, summer vacation as we know it is a pretty recent phenomenon. When the public education system started in the 1800s, calendars varied depending on the needs of the community. In cities, schools were open practically year-round, up to 240 days a year. Rural schools, on the other hand, were open for only about five months over two sessions, in the winter and summer. Fall and spring, school was out so children could help harvest the crops and help with planting, said John Rury, a historian of American education at the University of Kansas.
    By the late 1800s, a concern for the professionalization of teachers, periodic financial shortfalls and "the ill effect of too much schooling on students' and teachers' health" were among the factors that moved school leaders to eliminate the summer term, said Kenneth Gold, interim dean of education at The College of Staten Island/CUNY and the author of "School's In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools."
    In the early 20th century, the rural and urban districts came into alignment so pretty much everyone had a 180-day school year that started after Labor Day and ended in June.
    Daphne Sashin

    OK, so when did August become the new September?

    There are more than 12,000 school districts in the country, and all sorts of laws and reasons govern when they can start and who decides. All the education experts I spoke with seemed to agree that through the 1980s, Labor Day still ruled. But by the mid-1990s, especially in the South, districts began to hop aboard the August train. The last time schools started after Labor Day in my current home of Atlanta, it was 1996.
    This year, districts in states from Florida to Kansas to California will start in August and end around Memorial Day.
    There are still plenty of schools that start after Labor Day. The later date is popular in the Northeast, for one, and in Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, there are state laws backed by the local tourism industry that prohibit schools from starting before Labor Day unless they have a waiver.
    But, even in those states, some schools ar