Capitol Update from Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr.

Aug. 13, 2004

Students Should Be First Consideration

Although honest effort by our schools is exerted every year to help students excel, sometimes the children themselves are overlooked in the process.

For example, many schools start classes in early August after holding public hearings on their proposed school start date. The hearings stem from a bill I passed in the 77th legislative session setting the start date as the week in which August 21 falls, with Sunday being the first day of the week, unless a waiver is granted to the school district by the Texas Education Agency. The waiver provision was added in the House and the Senate was forced to concur; if not, the bill would have died.

So who is benefiting from the early start dates and what are the ramifications of these dates allowed under the auspices of local control?

Teenagers from low-income households who need to work to help out at home aren't given much consideration. When schools set start dates as early as August 5, it limits their ability to work full-time, which they can do only during summer and not during the school year.

Migrant students are faced with missing one to several weeks of instruction time because classes begin while they are still out-of-state, working the fields with their parents.

A study conducted a few years ago revealed that a quarter of a million children in Texas registered for school are not in the classroom for the first week of school. Yet schools continue to overlook this fact and start classes in early August.

Interestingly, data for 2003 indicates that scores for ACT and SAT tests appear to be higher for states with later start dates--often after Labor Day--than for those with earlier start dates. Other factors notwithstanding, Texas, with start dates in August, ranks at or below the national average for these exams.

Fortunately, many colleges are emphasizing participation in extra-curricular activities as part of their admissions requirements. However, the push to move up mid-term and final exams before the holidays minimizes the time and interest by students to participate in extra-curricular activities, which are also valuable to the development of a well-rounded student. The rush to complete these tests before the holidays, a time when there is greater stress and turmoil already, creates more tension for both children and teachers. Mid-January, when there is more time to focus on classroom material and less distraction, should be an ideal time to administer tests. Instead, we hurry our children to regurgitate material they supposedly just learned, and studies indicate that much of that type of rushed memorization is quickly forgotten.

Stress before the holidays can certainly lead to binging and unhealthy eating, especially if students are studying for exams. As chairman of the Joint Interim Committee on Nutrition and Health in Public Schools, this concerns me.

We need to seriously consider the timing of tests and listen to students about their stress levels.

The ability to listen is sometimes greater in and among children. For this reason, I am proposing a Health Mentor Program in public schools where a fellow student who understands the struggles to maintain a healthier and more fit lifestyle can voluntarily sign up to mentor a student struggling with obesity and eating problems, as well as stressors. These student mentors can be trained through our School Health Advisory Councils or SHACs and perhaps be eligible for elective credit.

Another proposal to encourage schools to meet their curriculum needs and shorten the school year voluntarily is my Extend the School Day Bill. I plan to introduce this measure next session. By adding 15 or 30 minutes to a school day, districts could still achieve the 1,260-hour yearly instructional minimum while cutting the calendar year by six to 12 days.

No proposal or calendar should place undue stress on either teacher or student. All of us--parents, educators and legislators--should work to find that delicate balance to guide our children but to listen to them and their needs at the same time. Their welfare and their ideas can help us see the logic in our programs and decisions, and I invite everyone in this state with an interest in children and in education to participate so that we achieve this goal. As always, if you have any input or questions regarding these or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact my office in Austin at 512-463-0127, Brownsville at 956-548-0227 and Weslaco at 956-968-9927.

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