Hannah Sheats raises goats, makes clothes and bakes items with the 4-H to show at the Maryland State Fair. But the 11-year-old Parkton girl hasn't been to the State Fairgrounds in Timonium as much as she'd like since Baltimore County public schools opened Wednesday.
Hannah, who attends Hereford Middle School, thinks she'd be learning more at the fair.
"At school, in the first couple of weeks you don't do anything. It's kind of pointless," she said. "With 4-H, you always learn something new. You never stop."
Hannah and others want Maryland schools to stay closed until after Labor Day — traditionally the final day of the fair.
The effort to make that happen is led by Comptroller Peter Franchot, who launched a petition drive this month to require a post-Labor Day start for public schools — a change recommended by a General Assembly task force that studied the issue.
"4-H kids and Future Farmers of America kids tend to work all year raising animals ... to meet in the county fairs, with the goal of working at the state fair," Franchot said. "Right now, a lot of [youngsters] are not starting school on time, because the family tradition of competing in the state fair in Timonium is so strong that they skip school.
"Why would we put our kids in that position?" he asked.
In Maryland, local school districts have the authority to decide for themselves when to start the school year, as long as they achieve the state-mandated 180-day calendar.
This year, only Worcester County — home to Ocean City — is starting after Labor Day, the traditional end of summer. According to the task force, it's the first Maryland district since the 2008-2009 school year to wait that long.
Starting class before Labor Day — the first Monday in September — is not a long tradition. As recently as 2000, Baltimore City and Baltimore, Harford, Montgomery and Worcester counties waited until after the holiday to begin school.
Max Mosner, the Maryland State Fair's president and general manager, said the fair has ended on Labor Day for about 45 years. This year, it opened Aug. 22 and is scheduled to close Monday.
Mosner, a member of the task force, says the relationship between the fair and 4-H stretches back to a time when more Marylanders were involved in farming.
"Young people looked at attending the state fair as an educational opportunity, hands-on, important," he said. "Unfortunately, that has disappeared in many counties around the state."
The youth development organization 4-H — Head, Heart, Hands, Health — is run by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The century-old group claims 1.5 million clubs with 6.3 million members and 4 million school enrichment programs.
Jeff Howard, state leader for 4-H, said the organization helps students develop skills in leadership and problem-solving. In Maryland, they work on projects in photography, woodworking, robotics and agriculture that culminate at the fair.
"Our biggest challenge has been just getting [students] out of school to come and exhibit their project work," Howard said.
Mosner says the fair now tries to schedule most 4-H events on weekends, and fair officials encourage students to attend school rather than stay for the week. Even so, some 4-H events are scheduled for the Friday entering the fair's final weekend.
Carl Roberts, former executive director of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, says he had never heard student participation in the fair used as a reason not to start school in August.
"Local school systems can work out individual arrangements with the students involved," he said.
But in the Baltimore area, only Harford and Carroll counties excuse students who miss school to participate in 4-H activities at the fair. Students in Harford must have written permission from a parent or guardian. Those in Carroll must get prior approval from their school principal.