Fair, families adjust to earlier school start

JUGGLING ACT: Attractions for younger fair-goers get scheduled later in the day.

August 25, 2010 

When Mat-Su and Anchorage school districts first announced a few years ago they'd be starting the school year before opening day of the Alaska State Fair, it wasn't clear how fair and school attendance would be affected by the calendar clash. For many years, classes didn't begin until after the fair ended on Labor Day.

But according to school and fair officials this week, students, parents and fair vendors have figured out ways to adjust to the change to keep everyone involved relatively happy.

"There's lots of juggling to make it all work," said Dean Phipps, director of fair marketing and communication. "School calendars are an intricate process. Some people say we should just change the fair dates, but that's like chasing a moving target."

Mat-Su Borough School District and the Anchorage School District began following school-year trends of Lower 48 districts for various reasons in 2006 and 2007, Phipps said. Federal standardized testing dates, grading periods, holiday vacations, and the desire to end the school year in May instead of in June were all driving factors for the earlier start.

One major fair group involving young people, 4-H, has had to make the most concessions to the changed calendar, Phipps said. They were able to move their horse show to an earlier date. But those with livestock at the fair have had to figure out how to get their animals fed while they're in school.

"We see more parents and older siblings pitching in to help take care of the animals," he said.

Phipps has been involved with calendar discussions between the school districts and fair officials for several years now, but this was the first year he was able to successfully convince Mat-Su administrators and the school board to at least have one of the district's in-service days on a Friday during the fair so that students could attend on a weekday without worrying about missing school.

"We wanted two in-service days -- August 27, which is Kids' Day at the fair, and September 3 -- and they agreed to September 3 since it works so well with the Labor Day weekend," Phipps said, adding he wasn't so lucky with Anchorage School District administrators.

"There was some interest from ASD school board members," he said. "But they were too far along in the scheduling process to adjust."

At least one Valley parent, Wasilla High School football coach Kent Rilatos, is allowing his three children to leave school after lunch Friday to be able to take advantage of the ticket discounts offered that day.

"It's a huge savings," Rilatos said Wednesday, adding that since his two oldest children attend Burchell High School, they will only miss one class that day. His youngest child is in fourth grade.

"It doesn't look good for a school coach to be pulling his kids out of school for the fair, but parents have to think about what makes the most economic sense sometimes," he said.

A few Wasilla Middle School teachers who gathered with Rilatos for lunch said they haven't noticed much of a drop in class attendance during fair weeks since the calendar change went into effect two years ago.

The school's principal, Amy Spargo, agreed, saying that since the school day for secondary students ends at 2 p.m., many teens can still enjoy the fair after school and on weekends.

"We know they've been to the fair because the next day they have 'fair hair,' " Spargo said with a laugh. "We see more absences during hunting season than during the fair."

Spargo's sister, Beth Valentine, sells her own beaded jewelry at the fair and said she hasn't noticed a drop in business since the change. She said she likes the fact that the school year ends earlier because her oldest children are able to find summer jobs near their Talkeetna home before they are snatched up by other students coming up from the Lower 48.

Phipps said many fair events and activities that cater to children now occur later in the day. Many Anchorage families adjust by waiting to come up to Palmer on the weekends, he said.

"Valley families come more often and are more weather-driven," Phipps said. "Anchorage folks bring RVs and stay the whole weekend. So it all works out."

Find K.T. McKee online at adn.com/contact/kmckee or call 907-352-6711.

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