My morning typically starts with a jolt. I spring out of bed with a gasp, look out the window into the grey sky, and wonder what time it is before dashing off to see if my son is awake. We typically have a mere thirty minutes to eat, get dressed, and get to school. Luckily, I only have a seven-minute walk to my son’s school—a major factor in why we chose it. I feel so lucky that his international school starts at 8:45 a.m. and that his teachers aren’t terribly upset if kindergartners are late, as so many children battle periodic jet-lag. The reason why we don’t set alarms is our particularly strange set-up—both my husband and I work for American-based companies and often stay up late. We are so fortunate to be able to sleep until 8 a.m. Interestingly, my six-year-old rarely wakes up before 7:45 a.m.—even when put to bed early. He has been growing by leaps and bounds and is the tallest kid in his class (even taller than most in then next grade) and we think that he needs the extra sleep due to his growth spurts. When we move back home I’m sure we’ll be in for a rude awakening trying to adjust to the typical American school day beginning at 7:30 a.m.!
A friend forwarded this NY Times article to me, The Early Bird Gets the Bad Grade, by education expert and author Nancy Kalish calling for later start times for schools. Kalish argues that teens especially need to start school later than 8 a.m. as their body clocks are much like adults and they find it harder to fall asleep before 11 p.m. In fact, she explains that teens’ bodies don’t typically produce melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, until 11 p.m. Ringing the school bell later would ensure that teens can pay attention in first period classes—but also would drop the numbers of car accidents, she argues, made by sleepy teens at the wheels. Since so many teens are late and miss first period, she also argues that drop-out rates would reduce too. Her editorial highlights a school district in Kentucky that has successfully pushed first period in schools from 7:30 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. without excess costs.
This makes sense to me. All schools in London begin between 8:40 a.m. and 9 a.m. It’s such a civilized time to go to school—especially when compared to the nightmarish scenario that my sister, Elizabeth Sippel, who is a math teacher in North Carolina, has to endure. She rises at 5 a.m. in order to get her son ready for school and to start her commute. Late bell rings at 7:50 a.m. at the elementary school where she teaches. Her fourteen-year-old son is actually picked up at 6:30 a.m. by his bus and arrives by 7:15 a.m. at the middle school. Each district, according to my sister, rearranges the start time based on the bussing schedules—with buses picking up elementary, middle, and high school students at different times in shifts. My mother-in-law is a high school French teacher in Tampa, Florida for a school that begins at the wee early hour of 7 a.m. The local elementary begins at 8 a.m. and the high school earlier due to bus scheduling as well. Sadly, she always brings granola bars and apples as she feels compelled to feed her first period students since their buses drop them after the free meal has already finished and most couldn’t coordinate breakfast with such an early first bell anyway. She finds the start time irrelevant to the main problems facing public schools.
“I have the leave the house at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. The kids wouldn’t get enough sleep even if school started at 8 a.m.,” says Georgene Wade, PhD.
Elizabeth would like a later first bell, but realizes that some working parents with long commutes might not be able to adjust.
“I, personally, would like schools to start a little later but I bet most working parents would not agree. A lot of parents don’t want to leave home for work while their kids are still at home waiting for the bus. Some parents could drop the kids off if the time frame was right. At my school, kids can’t be dropped off before 7:15. So if the times were pushed back, parents might not be able to drop off kids before 8:00 and therefore might be late for work. So it’s kind of a Catch 22.”
Some critics say that starting later would require a longer day. That may or may not be true. In countries like France and Spain, school hours can be longer—ending between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. depending on the school and region. But they often have breaks for a two hour mid-day meal. Children there seem to fare just fine—often speaking multiple languages and, more importantly, not seeming to suffer from as many cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to a 2003 study published in the journal World Psychiatry, one in twenty American children has ADHD. While there are many factors that may contribute to this disorder, I’d venture to guess that lack of sleep and little breakfast can’t help. What are your thoughts? If you and your child had an additional hour to get to school—would it make a difference? If not now (say if you have an elementary aged child who wakes at 6 a.m. no matter what), can you recall how you felt as a teen in high school? Do you agree with Kalish? Chime in—we want to know!
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