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Fixing the School Start-Time Problem

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Recently the six local school superintendents here where I live sent a brief survey to the community to try to figure out what to do about school start times. It was, indeed, a brief survey, but they ought to be commended for doing it. It needed to be done.

The school start time problem is one of those persistent problems that everyone seems to want to solve but no one can seem to crack. Much to their credit, these superintendents cited the mountains of research suggesting that later school start times, especially for adolescents, would have a clear, positive impact on the school experiences of kids. No doubt starting later would be good for their teachers too. 

But start times rarely get changed. For one thing, parents tend—rightfully so—to be skittish about messing with things that are already settled. As a parent, I feel that pain; it sure would be nice if we could just decide on something for once and plan accordingly. The exorbitant cost of child care continues to escalate, too, giving parents good reason to be worried about what would happen if their children's schedules did not match up to theirs or each others'. And, naturally, parents of very young children do not want to see them dropped off at home with no one there to meet them. This is a frightening prospect to many parents. Take it from me, I know: our bus driver once missed our son's stop when he was in first grade and made him walk home in the snow by himself. That's a true story. At least someone was home to greet him as he trudged up the driveway crying.

Still, this problem may be easier to solve than we think it is. I'm not one to recommended simple solutions to complex problems, but the truth is that this problem is not all that complex. It's logistically challenging, sure, and attempts to do anything about it tend to incite fierce opposition, but it's not complex—not, at least, in the same way that most of the actual educational problems we face are. We have evidence, after all, pointing us clearly in one direction, and most people seem at least to be open to the idea of changing start times. I can't guarantee that my solution would work in every district, but I think it would work in mine. And it's a solution so elegantly simple that it seems odd to me that no one has suggested it yet. Maybe someone did and I missed it.

So what's the solution? It's simple: make the elementary school day longer and build the secondary day into it. That's pretty much it.

I know what you're thinking. Kindergarten is the new first grade. Kids should spend more time at home, not at school. Testing is already out of control, and making the school day longer will only make things worse. But who said anything about testing? The last thing I think kids in elementary school need is more time prepping for tests, let alone being remediated for not doing well enough on a test or being tested again in advance of yet another test. You know what kids in elementary school need? Recess. Art. Music. Social Studies. Seriously, people: your kids really need social studies. Have you been watching what's going on in the world?

And that's the elegance at the heart of this solution: by rearranging school start times, we could actually take a step back toward a sane—and, dare I say, even enjoyable—school experience for the kids who attend them. For elementary kids, a longer school day could be filled with more enriching experiences, and with much-needed breaks from academic learning. For older kids, starting later could have a decidedly positive impact on their ability to arrive at school alert and ready to learn. I believe the proper term for this is killing two birds with one stone.

Moreover, by "sandwiching" the elementary day (8:30 to 4:30, say) around the secondary school day (9:00 to 4:00, for example), districts could potentially avoid the two major problems that parents identify when changes are proposed. If secondary students started school later than elementary kids did, older brothers and sisters might still be home before younger brothers and sisters get on the bus. By keeping elementary kids in school a little longer, older brothers and sisters could potentially be home already when their younger brothers and sisters get off the bus too. And starting no school day before 8:30 should help alleviate concerns about kids waiting for the bus in the dark—a very real safety concern.

There would still be concerns, and real ones. Could a plan like this work logistically? Districts would have to figure that out for themselves based on the distance between schools and other factors. A better question is: what would elementary students do with all this extra time? Eight hours is, after all, a long time to spend at school. But eight hours is not that much longer than 6 hours and 35 minutes, which is the amount of time elementary students spend in school here in our district now and seems to be pretty standard. Filling it with music, art, recess, and social studies—I'm telling you, folks, social studies— would be easy enough. If we were willing to pay for it.

And if some teachers would be willing to consider working a slightly longer day. If I were a teacher right now I'd say: no thanks. Like that old Texas saying goes, fool me and you can't get fooled again. Teachers know that, like all other workers, they are being asked to do more for less. I'm not arguing for that at all. If we ask teachers to do more, we'll need to find a way to pay them more. If we need to hire teachers to offer art and music classes, we need to pay them what their work is worth. If we need to ask them to suprvise a longer lunch or recess, we need to pony up. Any change in the teacher work day should be accompanied by a commensurate change in pay. That should be understood, even if it would prevent many districts from making a change like this.

But they should. They should do it because it's the right thing to do. School boards and school administrators (and other elected officials who hold the purse strings) should make decisions in the best interests of kids, and this kind of change would be good for kids. It also, not for nothing, would be immensely helpful to parents who worry about the health of their children. But to make it happen parents and teachers need to agitate for this kind of change. Teachers can make a professional argument (research-based, I might add) in favor of these kinds of changes. Parents need to make school boards understand that asking their kids to be up at 5:30 every morning is not good for their mental or physical health and adds undue stress to what should be a time in their lives focused almost entirely on personal growth.

In short, we should make it easier for kids to go to school and get something out of it, even if it means making a few sacrifices on our part. As it stands the choices we make now too often do the opposite. We can do better than that.

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