In a lot of respects, with or without kids, school vacation schedules seem to set how we operate our lives.
Until the middle of the 19th century, Americans used the word vacation the way the English do, the time when teachers and students vacate the school premises and go off on their own. (Siegel; NPR)
Summer … Memorial Day to Labor Day, right? Well, maybe before, but why?
A first thought is the historic reason for the season of summer vacations is so kids can go work on the family farm. There are a number of reasons summer vacation came about, but the farming calendar isn’t one of them.
There used to be two basic school schedules – one for urban areas and the other for rural communities.
In the past, urban schools ran year-round. For example, in 1842 New York City schools were in class for 248 days. Rural schools took the spring off to plant, and the autumn off to harvest. (The summer actually isn’t the busiest time in agriculture.)
Short school years with long vacations are not the norm in Europe, Asia, or South America. Children in most industrialized countries go to school more days per year and more hours per day than in America.
Rural schools typically had two terms: a winter term and a summer one, with spring and fall available for children to help with planting and harvesting. The school terms in rural schools were relatively short: 2-3 months each. (Taylor)
In addition, in rural areas, the summer term was considered “weak.” The summer term in rural neighborhoods tended to be taught by young girls in their mid- to late-teens. On the other hand, schoolmasters, generally older males, taught the winter terms. Because of this, the summer terms were seen as academically weaker. (Lieszkovszky; NPR)
It’s hot in the summer. The school buildings of the 19th-century weren’t air-conditioned. Heat during the summer months would often become unbearable. (Lieszkovszky; NPR)
In 1841, Boston schools operated for 244-days while Philadelphia implemented a 251-day calendar. In the beginning of the 19th-century, large cities commonly had long school years, ranging from 251 to 260 days. During this time, many of these rural schools were only open about 6-months out of the year. (Pedersen)
In the 1840s, however, educational reformers like Horace Mann moved to merge the two calendars out of concern that rural schooling was insufficient and then-current medical theory and concerns over student health in the urban setting.
“(A) most pernicious influence on character and habits … not infrequently is health itself destroyed by over-stimulating the mind.” (Mann)
This concern over health seemed to have two parts. As noted above, there was the concern that over-study would lead to ill-health, both mental and physical; the other concern was that schoolhouses were unhealthy in the summer (heat, ventilation, etc.) (Taylor)
Attendance became another problem. The city elite could afford to periodically leave town for cooler climates. School officials, battling absenteeism, saw little advantage in opening schools on summer days or on holidays when many students wouldn’t show up. Pressure to standardize the school calendar across cities often led campuses to “the lowest common denominator” – less school. (Mathews; LA Times)
In the second half of the 19th-century, school reformers who wanted to standardize the school year found themselves wanting to lengthen the rural school year and to shorten the urban school year, ultimately ending up by the early 20th-century with the modern school year of about 180 days. (Taylor)
Summer emerged as the obvious time for a break: it offered a break for teachers, generally fit with the farming needs and alleviated physicians’ concerns that packing students into sweltering classrooms that would promote the spread of disease. (Time)
While it’s clear historically that 3-month layoff from school was not based on farming needs – for most of the country – in Hawaiʻi there was a farm-based reason for the break from studies, at least from 1932 to 1969.
It happened in Kona.
By the 1890s, the large Kona coffee plantations were broken into smaller (5+/- acres) family farms. By 1915, tenant farmers, largely of Japanese descent, were cultivating most of the coffee. Many hours were spent cleaning and weeding the land, pruning the trees, harvesting the crop, pulping the berries and drying them for the mills.
These were truly family farms. “At that time, we used to work until dark. You see, no matter how young you were, you have to work. Before going to school, we pick one basket of coffee, then go to school. We come home from school and we pick another basket.” (Tsuruyo Kimura; hawaii-edu)
Konawaena was the regional school; it was first established as an elementary school, about 1875. By 1917, they were pushing to get a Kona high school (at the time, Hilo High, established in 1905, was the only high school on the island.)
In 1920, the Territory acquired land for a new school and in 1921, the new Konawaena accommodated students up to the 9th-grade; classes through the senior year were added by the 1924-25 school year.
Konawaena means “the Center of Kona,” and it lived up to its name. “Everything possible has been done to make the community feel that the school belongs to them. A Kona Baseball League has been organized and all league games are played on the school diamond” (Crawford, 1933; HABS)
The Kona area was observed as being “different socially from the rest of the Islands” (Crawford, 1933; HABS.) Coffee farming was the main reason for the difference. This labor-intensive crop thrived best in the steep lava slopes of the Kona districts.
“The labor problem is one that will have to be seriously considered. As coffee culture increases, the need of a greater supply of labor will be strongly felt, particularly at picking time. A large force is then needed for three or four months, after which, if coffee alone is cultivated, there is need only of a small part of the force required for picking.” (Thrum)
These labor and land factors meant a non-industrial, small-farm type of agriculture, very different from the industrial trends in the growing sugar and pineapple plantations that developed in other areas of the Islands.
The school went beyond recreational activities to accommodate the surrounding community.
In 1932, the school’s ‘summer’ vacation was shifted from the traditional Memorial Day to Labor Day (June-July-August) to August-September-October, “to meet the needs of the community, whose chief crop is coffee and most of which ripens during the fall months.” (Ka Wena o Kona 1936; HABS)
In 1935, the legislature recognized the ‘Konawaena Coffee Vacation Plan’ and passed legislation such that “The teachers of the Kona District … shall be paid, under such conditions as the Department of Public Instruction (now DOE) may require, their monthly accruing salaries during the months of September and October of each year during which such plan is in operation.” (Session Laws, 1935)
This “coffee harvest” school schedule and the “coffee vacation” lasted until 1969 (Honolulu Star Bulletin 1969; HABS.)
And now, in Hawaiʻi and across the country, there are varying arrangements for school schedules and vacations. Some areas have lost the 3-month layover; but most are trending with a total 180 to 200-days of instruction, with various schedules in arranging the breaks.
The image shows, reportedly, the old Konawaena School and coffee (Kona Historical.) In addition, I have added other images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.