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Alternative academic calendars might make a difference

Earlier this month, North Carolina joined other states in a move to bolster its tourism industry.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley signed a bill that mandates traditional starting dates for public school students beginning next year. The new law requires most school districts to start classes no earlier than Aug. 25 and end by June 10, adding about two weeks to vacations. Teachers, who now get up to 20 planning days a year, will get 15.
So far, no movement to mandate later starts for public schools in Mississippi has taken place. While most Mississippi schoolchildren returned to class August 9, some on the Gulf Coast began August 5.

“We haven’t received any complaints regarding school starting early in Mississippi,” said Pete Smith, spokesperson for Gov. Haley Barbour. “We wouldn’t set that policy. We would defer the issue to the Department of Education (MDE).”

Dr. Henry Johnson, state superintendent of education, said the Mississippi State Board of Education has not discussed this issue, “so there is no official MDE position yet.”

“I have had conversation with some staff members and there is little support for this kind of law,” he said. “My opinion is that most of our students need more time for instruction than the current schedules require.”

According to a report by D.K. Schifflet and Associates, Ltd., travel to Mississippi destinations from July to August dropped by nearly half. July, the highest-traveled month, captured 14% of out-of-state guests. In August, that number slipped to 8% and remained static until November, when the percentage dipped. March was the second most popular month for travel to Mississippi, accounting for 11% of visitors. The report was based on a survey representing 11.5 million overnight leisure travelers to Mississippi.

In the (hot) Lone Star state

In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed a law mandating public schools to not start earlier than the week of Aug. 21, based on a report conducted in 1999 by the Texas Department of Economic Development and Tourism and More Consulting Services.

“Private industry paid for this report, and the going-in position I gave them by contract was that I did not want a one-sided, self-serving report,” said Stan Hodge, director of travel research for the state agency. “If it turned out that this was the best thing for the kids, we would shut our mouths and go home. They were to provide us with benefits — and the down side — to the kids and to the travel industry. What we found was that the kids weren’t benefiting at all from starting school earlier. It was harmful to them, the schools and community budgets. You’re starting them back at the most expensive time to run a school. Just think of the air-conditioning bill alone.

“Also, many kids are riding buses that are not air-conditioned, where the temperature reaches over 100 degrees. What would happen to you and me if we left our kids in a car with temperatures over 100 (degrees)?

“Another thing, teachers like starting earlier because it gives them more review time to complete the semester before Christmas. The question is: if that’s the case, have you really taught the kids anything? Are we teaching principles or just going through the motions to get students to pass a test?”

Beth Carriere, executive director of the Hancock County Tourism Development Bureau and immediate past president of the Mississippi Tourism Association, said early school starts affect tourism-related events in her market.

“It’s not just mom and pop and the kids coming for a week of sun and fun, but group business has been affected as well,” she said.

However, to capitalize on the academic calendar changes elsewhere, Carriere said she would add North Carolina to the list of states with later school starts to whom she markets “a late summer fling on Mississippi’s West Coast.”

Boosting Dresden ticket sales

Jack Kyle, executive director of the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange, host of The Glory of Baroque Dresden exhibition from Germany, said early school starts in Mississippi have actually benefited ticket sales. Since the fall term began, schools have booked about 5,000 tickets to the international exhibition, which ends a six-month run September 6 at the Mississippi Arts Pavilion in Jackson.

“Several schools are bringing their entire student bodies, including South Pike County School and All Saint’s Episcopal School in Vicksburg,” said Kyle. “Forest Hill High School recently booked 500 (tickets).”

Kyle has also seen an increase in family travel from states with later school starts.

“We always have heavy visitation near the end,” he said. “Our phone is ringing from people in Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, trying to get here before it ends.”

Because it is not a traditional family destination, school start dates haven’t affected tourism in Tunica, said Webster Franklin, executive director of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The average age of the traveler is about 57, and most are empty nesters,” he said. “It doesn’t have as dramatic an effect on us as a true family destination might.”

Misty Velasquez, spokesperson for the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, said research shows that less than 10% of visitors have someone under the age of 21 in their group.

“Because the average age is older than the average traveler in the U.S., we can’t directly tie the slowdown in visitation with the start of school,” she said.

At press time, Mississippi Development Authority tourism director Craig Ray was en route to Boston, where he planned to meet with state tourism officers throughout the nation about educational issues. “That’s a question I have for them, how this movement has affected tourism in their state,” he said. “I haven’t heard of any movement in that direction in our state.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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