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More to last weeks of school than just fun, Utah educators say

Published: Friday, June 3 2011 4:04 p.m. MDT

Kaden Howell and Jenna Hunsaker of Clearfield High School swamp their boat in Willard Bay on Wednesday.

Ravell Call, Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — While some parents might feel like the last two weeks of May are just a series of permission slips that get their kids out of class, educators are quick to say important instruction still takes place.

"I've worked so hard to keep my kids interested. If I just did games all day, they would be so bored," said Kathy Helmandollar, a fourth-grade teacher at Hidden Hollow in Eagle Mountain.

Along with the field days, class celebrations, day-trips to Lagoon and swim parties, students are learning the last bits of curriculum they need before they advance to the next grade, she said. If anything, the idea that the tail end of the year is full of wasted days comes from parents who take their kids out of class for vacation, not schools, she said.

"You just can't believe the absenteeism," she said. "People are out all the time."

Former state Superintendent Patti Harrington said it's usually the older grades that parents think don't use their time wisely.

"High school is oftentimes where some of this criticism is leveled," she said.

That's because seniors have earlier end-of-the-year deadlines than their younger classmates. When the seniors leave early to check off their graduation requirements and complete locker checks, the kids left behind are often doubly distracted.

"The minute you pull seniors out, it becomes difficult for a teacher to move forward," she said.

Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsely said the district sends out letters to all principals at the beginning of May instructing them to tell their teachers not to take care of the logistical kinds of things like turning in textbooks and giving out yearbooks until the last couple of days. Evens so, some teachers are more diligent than others.

"We're very cognizant and very concerned of a perception that any time spent in the last week or two of school is a waste of time," Horsely said. "There's a perception and perception is often reality."

Standardized tests are given in all schools over the course of two or three weeks in May and wrap up a week or two before school gets out. Some teachers are tempted to just show a movie once those tests are done, he said.

Harrington, a former principal, said that is the exception to the rule. She said she knows teachers make tremendous efforts to keep their students "thoughtfully involved," even amid the palpable excitement felt as summer vacation approaches.

Helmandollar, who has taught for more than 20 years, said she knows some of her students won't do anything over the summer break to practice the skills they learned that year, so she reviews the results of the standardized test scores she gets back and focuses her last lessons on the subjects the kids have struggled in.

"You're learning the last moment things," she said. "It's very valuable to be there."

Parent Annette King of Bountiful said kids today work a lot harder during the school year than their parents did, and deserve the bit of fun that comes with the end of the year. King has a son who attends Woods Cross High and another at Bolton Elementary.

"What our kids do now through the year is way, way, way harder than what we did," she said.

They study for the ACT, and take end-of-year Advanced Placement exams in addition to their required classes, she said.

In addition to field trips and instruction, Harrington said there are necessary logistical tasks that have to happen like checking in library books, text books and submitting grades.

"They used to have some extra time," she said of the professional development days that have been widely cut by districts due to budget constraints. In many schools, once the kids are done, so are the teachers, so they need to have things wrapped up. Some still come in, unpaid, after the year is complete.

Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams said many of the fun activities have an educational aim. This week, third-graders in two classes at South Weber Elementary performed operas they wrote, and students in a physics class at Clearfield High put the lessons learned during the year to use Wednesday after school when students built and raced boats made out of only cardboard and tape.

"As a professional educator, you use your time to engage kids and teach kids because you never seem to have enough time to start with," Williams said.

Contributing: Ladd Brubaker

Email: mfarmer@desnews.com

Twitter: mollyfarmer

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