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Still Learning: Lessons From a Lifetime in the Classroom

By The Dawn's Early (not-so-very) Light

by Julia Sneden

In the last couple of years, there has been a lot of publicity generated by a study that discovered that high school students weren't getting enough sleep. (O, surprise!) Because many school systems operate elaborate bus schedules that must be staggered in three shifts to fit tightened budgets, high school kids are often being picked up as early as 6:30 a.m., while kindergarteners wait until 8:30 or even 9 a.m. to start school.

As a result of the publicity about high school students' lack of sleep, several school systems changed schedules, most of them shifting the burden of the earliest start to students in grades 4-8, followed by grades K-3 and ending with the sleep-deprived high school kids.

I suppose there is some logic to this. What with a heavy load of homework, calls and emails from friends, and a compulsion to play video or computer games, I have never yet known a teenager who went to bed on time. (In fact, I suspect that starting school an hour later will appear to them as license to stay up an hour later). But if I were the parent of a middle school child, I would be very upset. Children in grades 4-8 are entering that hormone-laden, fast-growing period that also demands enough sleep to sustain it. Staggering the buses is a solution that makes the grownups happy, but no child should have to shoulder that particular burden.

When my generation was young, schools didn't start until 9 a.m. Our school districts were small enough so that most children walked to school, and there were enough buses to handle the few of us who needed to ride them. Most kids walked out the door 10 minutes before school began, waving goodbye to stay-at-home, bathrobe-clad moms who had diligently provided them with a hot breakfast and handed them a lunchbox filled with nutritious fare. Contrast that with today's family which may well have a single parent, or if there are two, most likely both of them work outside the home. These wage earners must be ready to leave the house fully clad for the business day at the same time the kids must be readied for school. (No wonder breakfast has become PopTarts or McMuffins, and school lunch consists of prepackaged material or money for the school cafeteria).

Those working parents provide another reason for starting schools really early, because parents who must work outside the home cannot start their working days until the children are safely deposited at school. There are, of course, "Early Morning Programs" that receive children before the school day begins (and sometimes even feed them breakfast). They cost extra, but many parents are willing to pay the small charge to ensure that their kids are safe and where they need to be.

As our schools have grown, they have struggled to adapt to many new economic realities. With the demise of neighborhood schools and the creation of unified school districts, the school bus program has become an enormous expense, so that running buses in shifts makes good economic sense.

But does the practice make good educational sense? Any parent or grandparent knows that a sleepy child of any age isn't likely to absorb information, never mind sit quietly at attention. Having all schools in a system start later in the morning makes the best educational sense, even if it does imply a huge budget for transportation, and some unhappy parents who must pay some schools to accept their children into an Early Morning Program.

My grandchildren attend public schools in Charlotte, NC. They are lucky enough to have a stay-at-home mother, but even so, their mornings are fraught as the 14 year old struggles to leave the house by 6:45 a.m. for a 7 o'clock start of school. The first-grader hurries to catch her ride so that she can be in the classroom by 7:30. Getting either child to bed in timely fashion so that she can log a solid 8 -10 hours of sleep is virtually impossible, especially during daylight saving time.

That brings up another problem. Our Daylight Time doesn't end until the last Sunday in October. This means that for at least 6 weeks, children all across America are waiting for the school bus in the pitch dark. Not only is that a creepy way for a child to start the day, it's downright dangerous. Thirty-five years ago, when our local school district went countywide, my 8-year-old had to catch a 6:50 a.m. bus to carry him across town. He and his peers stood beside a busy suburban street that had no sidewalk to protect them from the cars that whizzed by. Although we parents provided them with flashlights and reflective tape on shoes and backpacks, not a morning went by that I didn't worry. Ultimately, a few of us decided to form a carpool and forego the free transportation — no small decision during the gas crunch of the '70's, and no easy decision for those of us with younger children who had to be loaded up and dragged along.

Maybe it's time to lobby Congress to end DST in the middle of September, or at least on the first of October.

Page Two of By The Dawn's Early ( not-so-very) Light>>



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