Alaska school year could start in September under new proposal

Crowberries in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge are seen on Oct. 5, 2016. House Bill 178 is intended to allow Alaska families to spend more time engaged in subsistence activities, such as berry picking. (Photo by Kristine Sowl/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Alaska schools could start the academic year in September if a new proposal is approved by the state’s lawmakers.

Senate Bill 178 would establish the first Tuesday of September as the earliest a state school could begin classes. Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, introduced the bill and said the later start date would allow students to spend more time on subsistence activities and working in construction or tourism jobs.

“I believe it will go a long way to de-conflict those things for kids who would like to stay on their summer jobs, as well as with families who would like to travel around the state and enjoy all that Alaska has to offer,” he said.

The change would affect the vast majority of school districts.

He said the time is right to push the start day back because schools have more flexibility to choose when they administer standardized tests, so they no longer have to start the school year earlier to maximize teaching time before testing dates in the spring.

“Nothing that stops a district from starting their district later except inertia,” he said. “Instead of fitting the character and culture of Alaska, we have calendars that fit a small group of people.”

A teacher himself, Bjorkman pointed to colleagues who rely on summer careers, including construction, to fill out their yearly income.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, pointed out that there are differing harvest times across the state and wondered if those regional differences should be considered. He noted that in his district, berries come in earlier than in Southcentral Alaska and moose hunts open in mid-September.

Bjorkman said those differences would be taken into account with a waiver process for districts that would like to differ. He pointed to the tourism industry in Southeast Alaska that may provide summer jobs and travel opportunities for students as a reason to consider a later start date.

Deb Riddle, operations manager for the state’s Department of Education and Early Development, said that there is already a waiver program in place within the department. She gave the example of the Lake and Peninsula School District, which starts in September and ends the year earlier than other districts for subsistence reasons.

Lon Garrison, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, said the organization has no stance on the bill, but advocates that the committee give it careful consideration.

“The broad impacts of that language really have to do with local control,” he said, adding that though the bill’s language is simple, it could have a variety of effects around the state.

Bjorkman said there can be flexibility in the bill, but that a statute change is necessary.

“I think that guidance is needed from the state Legislature to encourage local districts to overcome the inertia that has settled in and drafting calendars that, unfortunately, work for some school bureaucrats, but don’t work very well for Alaskan families,” he said.

He noted that schools may have to adjust how they measure teaching time or how many hours per day school is in session in order to meet state requirements between Labor Day and Memorial Day.

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