Illinois schools are starting earlier and earlier — except in Chicago

More than half the state’s public school districts this year brought either teachers or students back by Wednesday.

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A fleet of yellow school buses

Sun-Times file photo

If it seems like students in Illinois are going back to school earlier and earlier in August — infringing on late summer family vacation time — that’s because districts have slowly moved up start dates over the past decade or more.

Dozens of school districts across the Chicago suburbs are back in session this week, in some cases marking the earliest start date ever, completing a trend that saw hundreds of school districts statewide holding class by mid-August. The old standard that classes began after Labor Day is no longer true in the vast majority of districts in Illinois.

At least two dozen districts in Cook County — with dozens more in DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will — brought their kids back to the classroom by Wednesday.

At Maine Township High School District 207 in the northwest suburbs, students’ summers ended Tuesday when they went back to the three high schools in the district — Maine East, Maine South and Maine West.

A district official said the move to an earlier first day of school came in the 2015-16 academic year with the intention of wrapping up the fall semester before students go home for winter break in December.

In the past — and currently at schools with later start dates — tests and projects from the first semester have been saved for the first weeks of January, after winter break was done. That meant students were studying and finishing up projects during what was supposed to be time off.

”We know that high school students are more stressed than ever before. So one area we thought we could alleviate that stress was to give students a true break,” said Brett Clark, spokesman for the Maine Township district.

”Starting earlier allows us to finish up that semester before that winter break happens,” Clark said.

Maine doesn’t have a specific target day or date in mind for the start of the school year. Administrators instead choose a first day that works out to meet the goal of getting the fall semester done by winter break, Clark said.

Since the change was implemented four years ago, school has started about a week or so earlier: Both this year and last year, the Maine high schools started August 13; in 2014-15, the last year before the change, students went back August 19.

Seismic change

Over the past 15 years, there’s been a seismic change in the first day of school across the state.

In 2004, only 16 of the 1,006 school districts statewide — less than 2% — had teachers or students back by August 14, according to records kept by the Illinois State Board of Education. This year, 502 of the state’s 910 districts — more than 55% — saw teachers back or classes getting underway by that date.

Willowbrook High School in Villa Park started Wednesday, at least 10 days earlier than in 1999 when school started August 24. The change has been made easier by the installation of air-conditioning in that time, one teacher said.

School District U-46 in Elgin and Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 — the second and fifth largest districts in the state, respectively — both started Wednesday.

Chicago Public Schools, which has long stuck by its post-Labor Day start, goes back Sept. 3.

School started Wednesday at Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205, where Guido Nardini wasn’t too upset to take his two sons to their 5th and 6th grade classes.

“I think they were ready for it,” said Nardini, co-owner of Club Lago in River North. “We had just gone to a summer camp, and they knew that at the end of the summer camp they were on their way back to school.”

Nardini said he didn’t have any problems with the early schedule and could work family vacations around the school calendar. Earlier start dates mean kids are done with school by May or very early June in many districts.

“All I know is summer was last week, and this week there was a wave of middle school kids streaming through my house after the first day, and I was on peanut butter and jelly duty feeding them,” Nardini said. “But put me down for one that I’m happy the school year started.”

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