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August tradition

Lifestyle | The school year is beginning sooner and the school day is lasting longer throughout the country

Issue: "Back to School," Aug. 27, 2011

This fall one of every six persons in the United States will be an elementary or secondary student-55 million in all. Another 20 million will be in college. Altogether nearly one-fourth of U.S. inhabitants will be attending school. Add to that the 4.6 million teachers and college professors, and 5.4 million administrators and support staff, and it becomes clear that for many Americans the new year begins in August or September rather than January.

Since 1985 the number of public elementary and secondary students has grown 25 percent. Private-school enrollment grew at a slower 7 percent rate. The expansion of pre-K programs helps explain the big increase in the number of public-school students, especially at the elementary level. Forty states now have government-funded pre-K programs, mostly serving 4-year-olds. Since 1985 the number of children attending public pre-K programs has increased 679 percent, from .2 million in 1985 to 1.3 million in 2010.

Not only are children starting school younger, they likely spend more time each day in the classroom. The Obama administration is pushing hard to increase the hours students spend in school, especially students in poor performing ones. Two programs initially funded by stimulus money-Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation Fund-make Increased Learning Time a priority. Some states have dealt with the effects of the bad economy, though, by cutting classroom time. This could become a battle during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act later this year, since longer school days mean more money for teacher salaries.

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Although state and local officials set school calendars, a certain uniformity used to exist from state to state. That's no longer true. Labor Day may mark the traditional end of summer vacation, but this year 75 percent of public schools say they will have the first day of class before Sept. 1, up from 50 percent in the late 1980s. According to Schooldata.com, school opening dates differ widely by region. In most of the Southeast, most schools open before mid-August. In contrast, in New York, New Jersey, and a swath of states in the upper Midwest, most schools still open after Sept. 1. End-of-year closing dates also vary widely by region, with more schools in the Northeast closing in late June rather than May.

Uniform purchases

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Tops on most back-to-school shopping lists: clothes, shoes, and school supplies. Lower on the list: books and laptops, perhaps because consumers have switched to cheaper alternatives-smart phones and tablets like the iPad.

One item on many back-to-school shopping lists: school uniforms. French Toast School Uniforms says 150,000 more students nationwide will be wearing uniforms this upcoming school year. That's partially because uniform manufacturers have been able to convince school officials that uniforms, in the words of French Toast president Michael Arking, "keep the children focused on academics and make it easier to ensure safety on school grounds." Another manufacturer, Classroom School Uniforms, says uniforms help school districts fight bullying, a major concern. Anecdotal data supports the benefits of uniforms, but the scientific research is unclear.

In England, retailing chains are competing to see who can make the most indestructible uniforms. According to The People, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, and Asda are selling shoes with a special coating to keep them from getting scratched, socks with heel and toe reinforcements, and coated clothes "so liquids like fizzy drinks run off."

Shopping for school

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Retailers look forward to July and August because the back-to-school season ranks right behind Christmas for sales, accounting for about 17 percent of annual sales. Two groups, ShopperTrak and PriceGrabber, have offered predictions about this year's back-to-school shopping season. ShopperTrak, which measures foot traffic in more than 25,000 stores, estimates spending will rise about 3 percent this year-but says that isn't necessarily good news for brick-and-mortar stores. It expects shoppers to spend less in stores and more online. PriceGrabber, a division of the credit-reporting agency Experian, thinks shoppers will spend less this year, but also predicts they will use online price comparison websites to help them find bargains. PriceGrabber says 56 percent of shoppers last year expected to spend more than $250, but this year only 48 percent expect to spend that much. Last year 31 percent expected to spend more than $500, but this year only 25 percent expect to. The high unemployment rates among teenagers, who won't be able to spend as much as they have in years past, poses a problem for retailers.

Food stuff

Handout

Do you know what the Vikings ate for dinner? What a typical meal of a wealthy family in Roman Britain consisted of, or what food was like in a Victorian Workhouse?" That's how the online History Cookbook begins. It divides human history into 12 British-centric periods beginning with prehistoric and moving through Romano-British, Saxons and Vikings, Normans/Medieval, and through the Tudors, Stuarts, etc.

Each section has background information on the period, food and health facts, recipes, and videos showing people in costume preparing the food with technology from the period. So whether you're in the mood for Roman pottage cooked on an open fire, or Victorian beef stew with dumplings cooked on the range, you can learn how here (cookit.e2bn.org/historycookbook/index.php).

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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