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For state fair participants, start of school before Labor Day hits home

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.

Baltimore and Howard counties do not consider 4-H grounds for excused absences. Anne Arundel County schools spokesman Bob Mosier said schools can work with students on excusing absences for educational activities, but there is no set policy regarding the fair. Baltimore schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said the city has "no systemwide initiatives covering 4-H participation in the state fair."

Among those excused from school to attend this year's fair is Miss Maryland Agriculture. Jordan Mister is a 16-year-old junior at Huntingtown High School in Calvert County, which started school last week.

Jordan, a 4-H member, has duties throughout the fair as Miss Maryland Agriculture, but returned home to attend school two days last week and three days this week.

She was back at the fair Thursday. Mosner wrote a letter to her school district on her behalf, and she was excused for school days missed.

Mister said she is "neutral" on the question of when to start the school year.

"I think it would have been easier for me to be more involved in the state fair to bring my animals and not worry about going back to school," she said. "But it's also nice to get a head start."

On Thursday, some 4-H participants who are no longer in high school recalled skipping classes to perform fair duties.

Ashley Fuss, 19, a sophomore at Frederick Community College, shows sheep with the 4-H. When she attended Walkersville High School in Frederick, "I would always miss a class in order to come down here and be able to show them on a Friday.

"You always had a lot of homework to bring down, and it was always doing homework and getting your animals prepared for the show that you had to struggle with," she said.

"Some days I had to miss school, called in sick," said Melissa Coroneos, 19, a graduate of Franklin High School in Reisterstown.

"Four-H is a big deal," Coroneos said. "It makes a lot of kids happy and gives them something to do. You learn responsibility through taking care of animals, and you learn time management and life skills."

Franchot, who plans to push for legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, says 4-H participation at the fair is just one of the reasons to start school after Labor Day.

He says the move would boost tourism and enable business owners to employ teens through August. His office reported last year that delaying the start of the school year would add $74.3 million each year to the state economy.

But the effort has drawn opposition from school districts. Roberts, who is now a consultant, told the task force that all 24 school systems would oppose legislation mandating a post-Labor day start. He said they would see it as a move to take away their authority to set their school calendars.

Mosner says most of the resistance lies with district leadership.

"You talk to teachers, you talk to principals and assistant principals, and very rarely do you get somebody who's opposed to it," he said. "It's not until you get to the school boards and the superintendents" that opposition exists.

A spokesman said Maryland Superintendent Lillian Lowery believes districts should be able to make calendar decisions "in the best interest of their students and communities."

"If the General Assembly should decide to visit the matter, then we would support its decision," Bill Reinhard said.

Not all students face a dilemma this week. Samantha and Jacob Heston of Street in Harford County, who are home-schooled, do classwork around their 4-H competitions. The two live on a farm and take part in goat competitions. Their school year began in early August.

Jacob, 16, said friends who go to public schools have a tough time juggling 4-H fair duties and the start of the school year.

"They have to come down here after school, feed these animals, work with these animals."

jburris@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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