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School starts ... when?

With summer reading lists, elaborate projects, and math sets to complete, kids (and parents) are cramming to get it all done

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / August 30, 2011

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Fourth-grader Claire Wiest, 9, was supposed to learn her multiplication tables this summer. “But somehow in two months we never found just the right moment,’’ said her mother, Carrie Fletcher, of Jamaica Plain, noting that the flash cards remain where they have been since early July: on the kitchen counter, untouched.

“It’s not that I think she’ll be busted at school if she doesn’t learn them,’’ said Fletcher, “but I don’t want her to be the one person who shows up not knowing them, either.’’

With what was once a long break down to mere days, Fletcher finds herself engaged in a late-summer activity familiar to many parents of school-age children: cramming, or preparing to do so. “We will do the flash cards,’’ she vowed.

Many jobs have their busy seasons, and for parents, this is it. “August just slams us in the head,’’ said Amy Nobile, coauthor of “I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids.’’ In interviews with hundreds of mothers, she found that the back-to-school period is even more stressful than the holidays.

“Frankly,’’ Nobile said, “the second part of the summer can be a hot mess.’’

There are summer reading logs to fill out, math calendars to complete, projects to finish, extracurricular activities to sign up for, haircuts and carpools to schedule, very specific types of markers and folders to buy. Technically, much of the work belongs to the kids, but as even non-helicopter parents know, there’s responsibility and there’s reality.

The increased expectations have been recognized by no less an education expert than Samantha Bee, a correspondent for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.’’ “I am a child of the 1970s,’’ she wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal essay. “What that means, in short, is that my childhood summer vacations were spent languishing in front of the TV watching Phil Donahue and eating Boo Berry until my skin turned purple. Nobody cared if I read. . . . What ever happened to letting kids’ IQs backslide for three months, all the way back to March?’’

Here’s what happened: Research began to show that children can lose a lot of educational ground over the summer if they don’t use their reading, writing, or math skills, said Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, director of national programs and site development at the University of California Berkeley-based National Writing Project. That recognition, in turn, has translated into summer homework at schools that never used to assign it, and with that, more work for moms and dads.

Whether or not it should mean more work for parents is an open question. “I keep having the same conversation with myself,’’ said Cynthia Smith, of Milton, a literacy coach for teachers. On the one hand, she believes her daughters, going into fifth and 10th grades, are responsible for getting their work done. On the other, she doesn’t want them to show up at school unprepared. “How much do you own?’’ she asks. “How much do you let go? I go back and forth.’’

Last week, Smith told herself she wasn’t going to inquire any further into the status of her girls’ (unfinished) assignments - but three days later, unable to help herself, she was at it again. “I don’t want them to be up until 2 a.m. the night before school starts.’’

In the school supplies section at the Dorchester Target, Bettina Francis was grappling with a different set of issues. Even as she fought off a request for a large, expensive tub of air-dry clay, another concern preyed on her mind: re-creating, somehow, the book report forms her sons need so that they can complete their summer assignments.

“I thought the forms were on the bulletin board,’’ she said, but after spending days scouring her apartment, checking and rechecking the board, she had to accept the truth: “They’re gone.’’ Plan B: Go on the Internet to look for a similar form, or at least one close enough to satisfy the teachers. “It’s stressful.’’

Why all the anxiety? Perhaps a better question is why not more? With almost three-quarters of mothers working, according to a March 2011 White House report, coupled with the increased awareness of the importance of maintaining skills, and the expense of school supplies, the pressure is on.

“It can be overwhelming,’’ said Yolanda Baker-Jackson, of Dorchester. Between her full-time job as a medical assistant and nursing school, time is tight. But last week, she still had stores to hit before she could relax.

She and her 14-year-old had already been to Old Navy, Dots, and Target - all of them sold out of the shirts that met the precise requirements of her daughter’s school: The tops need to be red, white, or black, they must have a collar, and have no writing or decoration.

Supplies may have been more plentiful earlier, but Baker-Jackson didn’t have the money to spend then. “You can only do what you can do,’’ she said, “but you want to make sure your child is prepared for everything.’’

Perhaps no one is better positioned to see the last-minute anxiety than Traci Walker Griffith, principal of the Eliot school in the North End. She gets calls from parents stressed because they’ve lost the summer reading list. “I talk them through it,’’ she said. “If they’re on vacation, I say, go to a library or go to Target.’’

Other parents show up at the school itself, looking for the reading list or the math packets. Griffith does advise calmness, but she’s also firm. “We’ll work with parents to get it done,’’ she said, her tone exactly the kind that panics parents, “but we’re not excusing students from doing the work.’’

In nearby Brookline, procrastinating parents regularly rush into the Brookline Booksmith to make last-minute purchases off the schools’ reading lists. “Often they have the poor kids shuffling along behind them,’’ said Dana Brigham, manager and co-owner.

There is, it should be noted, another breed of parent: Those who do not say, “Help! They only have one week left to finish the math,’’ but rather, “Math? The kids are supposed to do math?’’ Whether they are to be pitied or envied is unclear.

Meanwhile, the school bell is about to ring. “It’s a little hard to get it all lined up,’’ said Catherine Walkey, a mother of three, and the owner, with her husband, of Blue on Highland. This is a busy time for her Needham restaurant - and also for her fourth-grader, whose summer project from Dedham Country Day School involved creating and selling a product, donating the money to charity, and then reporting on it the first day of school.

Samantha, 9, is growing and selling vegetables, and she’s already raised $35 for children in Somalia, but as her deadline nears, she’s got more hawking to do. “She’s a very motivated child, so I don’t have to remind her,’’ Walkey said, “but she can’t sell it on her own because we’re on a busy street, so I have to be there with her.’’

There is one benefit to all this last-minute work. It means that school’s about to start, and with it, a break of sorts. As Walkey observed: “It’s a lot of work being mommy camp counselor for the summer.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.