Why Does the School Year Start in August in the South & September in the North?

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Sean Gallup/Getty Images A fourth-grade student reads a book with her teacher in the elementary school.

Many United States students have noticed that northern states traditionally start the new school year later than the southern states. Why are the two summer vacations different?

A common belief is that this difference is from a long gone American agrarian society, where children were needed to work on farms in the summer. Because the south had an earlier start to the season, the southern students would get out sooner (May) to help on the farm than northern students, who typically get out of school in June. Because of this, the southerners would go back to school in August, while the northerners would go back to school in September.

NPR calls it the “agrarian calendar that dates back to farm cycles and harvests.”

However, this isn’t fully true. In fact, the U.S. stopped being an agrarian society in the 1920s, and much education reform has happened since then.

But even prior to this reform, the U.S. school calendar looked drastically different than it does today. In regards to agrarian life, PBS writes, “Kids in rural, agricultural areas were most needed in the spring, when most crops had to be planted, and in the fall, when crops were harvested and sold. Historically, many attended school in the summer when there was comparatively less need for them on the farm.”

So what caused the rift in school calendars?

The major reason for the differences in summer vacation schedules is rural versus urban. The South remained more agrarian longer than the industrial North. In northern cities, summer was swelteringly hot—especially in places like New York. Many families simply left urban centers during the summer months to find relief in vacation homes.

This model was followed as urbanity expanded.

However, many are calling for this model to be challenged and some school districts have introduced progressive change. Year-round school has been championed as one way to fight the income gap between students. According to Business Insider, summer vacation is “widely cited as one of the most corrosive factors in the achievement gap between low- and high-income students. While low-income kids play games and watch cartoons in the summer, high-income kids go to camp, visit museums, and continue learning.”

According to a 2016 study by Niche.com, there are 3,181 year-round schools in 46 states, which makes up about 10% of public school students nationwide.

A common calendar for year-round school can be viewed here.

What do you think of year-round school? Comment below.