School start date affects young state fair exhibitors

Author: Kristy

A change to Iowa school dates might have pushed attendance and 4-H and FFA participation up at this year’s State Fair, according to fair officials. The fair ran Aug. 13-23. According to the new rule, schools could start after Aug. 23.

August 27, 2015 6:01 am  • 

DES MOINES — Now that the state fair is over and school has started, fair officials are starting to get an idea how changes in the school start date affected this year’s fair.

“We’ve had many agriculture teachers tell us that it actually helped,” says State FFA Advisor Dale Gruis about allowing students to get to the fair to show animals.

State Fair Manager and CEO Gary Slater agrees, saying it is difficult to measure the difference, but he thinks the change did mean greater participation.

“We had 88 more exhibitors in the 4-H hall,” Slater says. Numbers were also up in 4H and FFA participation.

“The 4-H building was just filled with people,” he adds.

Total fair attendance figures were not available at press time, but the numbers were up going into the final fair weekend, Slater says.

“For the last five or six years, the Thursday and Friday (going into the last weekend of the fair) were our lightest days,” he says.

This year, he says attendance was about 105,000 on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 103,000 on Thursday and 106,000 on Friday.

Those are all high numbers. And while Slater says good weather was a major factor, he thinks the fact students and families were not in school for those days also made a difference.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said before the fair he hoped the change in school start dates would help foster more youth participation at the fair and would enable more families to visit.

“Anecdotally, folks say you would see the difference,” Northey said. “I would hope so.”

The change was not without controversy.

ONCE UPON a time, the school calendar followed the agricultural calendar, allowing students to work at home on the farm during the summer.

The later date also was based in part on the fact that, until recent years, few school buildings had air conditioning. The later start kept children out of school on more hot days.

But recently, it became clear fewer and fewer students lived and worked on the farm and farms used less student and manual labor.

While state law said school should not start until after Sept. 1, most schools asked for and received waivers allowing them to start earlier.

The reasons for earlier starts included the idea of ending the first semester before Christmas, the ability to add other breaks in the school year, the idea students retained more knowledge if the summer break was shorter and the attempt to align high school start dates more closely with colleges and national schedules for standardized tests.

BUT, LAST winter Gov. Terry Branstad, with the support of the state fair and state tourism industry, announced he would tell the state department of education to stop granting such waivers and to enforce the Sept. 1 start dates.

That spurred a legislative debate, with the end result a compromise that said school would not start before Aug. 23 — before the Sept. 1 date supported by tourism groups but after the state fair.

As a result, most schools in the state started some time this past week, right after the end of the fair.

Some education officials argued against the change, saying school start dates should be based on what is best for education, not what is best for the fair or for the tourism industry.

They also argued the change would make it more difficult for students who are taking classes through their school at local colleges or for those students in advanced placement classes.

But, fair officials were clearly happy to see the later school start date, as were many high school agriculture teachers.

Branstad, for his part, says he is pleased with the compromise.

“The fair is one of my favorite places to be,” he says.


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