The first bell rings early this year for nearly all Central Texas public school students.
Two Austin charter schools opened at the end of July, and two more opened Monday. Meridian School, a charter school in Round Rock, will follow Wednesday.
The first traditional school districts in the area to open their doors will do so Aug. 15.
The state mandates school starting no earlier than the fourth Monday of August , but most districts in Central Texas and statewide, just as last year, are taking advantage of a 3-year-old law that gives traditional public school districts autonomy similar to charter schools.
The so-called district of innovation designation gives districts the flexibility to hire noncertified teachers, develop their own teacher appraisals instead of using a state-designed system and offer larger student-to-teacher classroom ratios. But the most popular freedom enables districts to sidestep the start date requirement.
Dripping Springs in 2016 was among the first in the state to obtain the designation, and only a handful of local districts have not sought it; those without it must continue to start school Aug. 27 or later. Becoming a district of innovation requires months of planning, public meetings and a district-tailored innovation plan.
Administrators said they prefer to start school earlier to allow them to better balance the number of days between the fall and spring semesters, while maintaining a full week off during Thanksgiving and giving high school course exams before the two-week winter break.
The state requires districts to offer a minimum of 75,600 minutes of instruction, so schools that start early can also finish early. The majority of Texas school districts, 784 of the more than 1,000, now are districts of innovation.
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The flexibility also allows high school students to enroll in summer college courses for dual credit; the school year often ended too late for students to enroll in college courses, which typically start at the end of May, or students would have to juggle finals during the first week of summer school. Early start dates also give districts the ability to bank school days for any school missed because of bad weather, instead of being forced to possibly tack on days at the end of the school year. Districts also may extend the length of school days to make up for school missed for weather.
“We are still assessing all the ways we can leverage this designation to provide the best opportunities for our students, but already it has allowed us flexibility in our school calendar and removed restrictions that made it difficult in the past to fill certain positions,” Round Rock district Superintendent Steve Flores said.
The state previously had uniform start dates, including in the 1980s when school couldn’t start before September, but districts later, and routinely, obtained state waivers to start earlier. After pushback from the tourism industry, as well as some parents, in 2007, the state mandated school start times no sooner than the fourth Monday in August and ended the popular waivers.
Leander district officials said the only reason the district sought the designation, obtained this year, was the flexibility to adjust the school calendar.
“There are absolutely no plans to access any other DOI options,” said Matt Mitchell, Leander district spokesman.
Hays is among the few Central Texas districts starting on the last Monday of this month. The district, which has had recent leadership changes, has not sought the designation, but new administrators said they will consider it.