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SW Minn. schools start early year in the heat

SLEEPY EYE, Minn. (AP) -- The school year has begun for 16,000 students in southwestern Minnesota, who are part of a three-year experiment to see if starting class before Labor Day can improve test scores.

State law normally prevents districts from starting before Labor Day, a statute supported by the State Fair and the tourism industry, but the Education Department gave the 25 districts special permission.

Although educators and critics of the early start are closely watching the districts, students and teachers said nothing seemed out of the ordinary Monday. "Not really," Sleepy Eye ninth-grader Carly Jensen told The Free Press of Mankato. "It just feels like school."

Choir teacher Joe Kent agreed and said the earlier start date would give him more time with students before their first performances.

The heat did limit physical education class and after-school sports in Mountain Lake, where the town's old school building is brick and lacks air conditioning.

Mountain Lake Superintendent Bill Strom said that might give ammunition to critics of the early start, but he told Minnesota Public Radio that it was the right move.

"Some people would rather be on vacation right now," he said. "Put that together with the fact that we've had an unusually hot day, it can create the momentum that 'Gee, you should have done something different.'

However, he said, "I haven't heard any of that today."

Klint Willert, superintendent of the Marshall school district, said, "The kids' reactions don't really change whether it's before Labor Day or after Labor Day. It's anxiety for a few, but overwhelmingly quite positive."

Supporters of the early start note that all 25 districts now also have the same calendar, which means superintendents can pool their resources and buy better teaching training programs. It also lets the districts finish the first semester before the winter break so students don't have to come back and take final exams.