Across the region, students heading back to school

Custodians are prepping classrooms, teachers are toting supplies and students are soaking up the summer before back-to-school arrives for local school districts.

Merrimack schools start later than most in the region as part of a teachers’ master agreement that says school cannot start before the Monday before Labor Day, so the first day this year is Sept. 1.

“You can see, if Labor Day is on the fifth of September this year, we have three days of professional development for teachers and then the students start,” Merrimack School District Superintendent Marge Chiafery said.

Teachers arrive at school and undergo three days of preparation before students show up for class, Chiafery said. The Labor Day break gives students two opportunities to charge up for back-to-school, especially if they need to get acclimated for a new building, moving from elementary to upper elementary, or middle school to high school, Chiafery said.

“The students have two days with us, so it’s getting oriented to their teacher and how everything’s going to operate,” Chiafery said. “They come back on Tuesday and we’re underway. I suppose one could say you almost have two openers, Sept. 1 and Sept. 6. For some, it’s kind of like forgetting the routine. I look at it as a full orientation.”

No matter when their districts begin, administrators around the region say their respective staffs are ready for back-to-school.

“Every new school year just offers so many opportunities and we have new teachers, of course, taking the place of those who have retired or gone through some form of attrition, so there are new blood lines and that’s always exciting,” Chiafery said. “We’re excited to see the kids, for me who spends a great deal of time in the office during the summer, to have the children around is our purpose.”

In Bedford, where school started Aug. 24, classes are already in session at least a week earlier than surrounding schools.

Amherst, Hollis/Brookline, Milford and Wilton-Lyndeborough start school Aug. 31.

But the early-bird-catches-the-worm mentality that dominates the Bedford school schedule is nothing new for staff and students.

“We started this time of year every year since I can remember being in the district,” Bedford School District Superintendent Tim Mayes said. “We’ve had a conversation administratively as we set the calendar, whether we want to start the last full week of August or later, and feedback from principals and staff was to keep it this particular week.”

There are some mixed feelings between parents and staff about whether starting earlier in Bedford is the best way to go, Mayes said.

“Ultimately, the School Board establishes the calendar, and so I would say that not everybody finds this to be the best time to start school, but from teachers’ point of view, they find the kids come back ready to learn and find the weather, in their opinion, to be a little cooler in the August/September period of time than it is in June. For some others, they are still enjoying vacation, so it’s a bit of a struggle to get back to school, and we understand.”

Despite the earlier return to classes, the district does not experience many problems with kids missing the first day back, Mayes said.

The board consults with teachers on their opinion every year on the calendar, Mayes said, and finds most teachers prefer the early-to-start, early-to-end routine.

“From a productivity point of view, we feel as though the school days in August and September are better than days in June at the end of the year,” Mayes said.

Depending on snow days incurred over the year, Bedford gets out about a week earlier than other school districts at the end of the year. Bedford schools have seen about three to six snow days in recent years, Mayes said.

“It gives us ample time to make up the snow days and still have the kids get out at a reasonable time in June,” Mayes said.

Though some people might not always like the accelerated start when compared to surrounding districts, they usually change their tune when spring comes, Mayes said.

“They don’t think about it now, but they do in June,” Mayes said. “There’s always a small group that’s impacted, some parents find it problematic (getting out earlier in June) with day care for kids, depending on jobs, but overall, we’ve found we haven’t had that many concerns.”

All schools adhere to a suggested school calendar issued by the New Hampshire Department of Education that requires school districts to schedule 190 days of school, 180 days for instruction, and an additional 10 days for time lost due to inclement weather, unexpected circumstances, staff development/in-service activities and parent-teacher conferences.

The state suggests the 2011-12 calendar start Sept. 1, but it is up to the school boards of each district to determine the schedule for their students.

Many districts prefer to start before Labor Day to allow students to build back up to five days a week, while also keeping harsh and unpredictable changes of New England seasons in mind.

“We start the Wednesday before Labor Day as part of past practice,” said Betsey Cox-Buteau, associate superintendent of the Hollis/Brookline School District. “It’s what’s been done for many, many years.”

“One possible reason is you have a full five days to get ready, two days to get your teachers in, and then three days of school to get the students going, then you have the long weekend because those first few days are exhausting,” Cox-Buteau said.

Milford follows a similar precedent, starting Aug. 31, with two days of workshops for teachers.

“It’s kind of a nice incremental break-in because the first week of school is three days, the following week is four days, then we get into full, five-day weeks beginning Sept. 12,” said Bob Suprenant, Milford School District superintendent. “We’ve done that for a number of years, and in general, the public and parents appreciate consistency in a school schedule.”

Milford students benefit in two ways by getting back before Labor Day, Suprenant said.

“There’s an enthusiasm on the part of students, though they might not say it,” Suprenant said. “They’re anxious to get back. It’s an opportunity to capture that enthusiasm, and I think we’re much more sensitive about canceling school for snow days or inclement weather.”

A designated calendar committee of administrators, teachers and School Board members in the Amherst district keep their start date slated before Labor Day.

“Our start date is traditional for SAU 39,” said Peter Warburton, superintendent of the Amherst School District. “We have a very involved calendar committee, a group of individuals who get together each year and promote the calendar for each year. It seems to have worked very well.”

Orientation for new Amherst staff is Aug. 25, and staff members across the district report Aug. 30 for an introduction and superintendent’s address, Warburton said.

“It gives us a good start, a quicker start and a bit of a break on Labor Day weekend,” Warburton said.

“We’re looking forward to a good school year in Milford,” Suprenant said. “We’re fortunate that we have an excellent teaching staff, group of administrators and employees within the district, and we’re looking forward to a good year.”

“I’m honored to be the new superintendent here for sure, and I’m looking forward to some great collaborative work with staff at the Amherst, Mont Vernon, and Souhegan schools,” Warburton said.

“Everything’s coming together, the buildings will be ready,” Cox-Buteau said in Hollis/Brookline. “We’re excited about starting another school year and our anticipation is that everything will go smoothly.”

“We can’t wait. We’ve got, for the most part, all of our staff hired … We’ve got a three-day professional development activity going on for administrators then a new teacher orientation,” Mayes said. “We’re ramping up.”

Administration from the Wilton-Lyndeborough School District could not be reached before press deadline.

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashuatelegraph.com.