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The Learning Curve: Getting Ahead by Starting Late

A few months back, Kelly Abbott, a friend of VOSD, stopped by the office.

He’d just heard Sunset View, the Point Loma elementary school his son attends, was thinking of starting the school day earlier next year. That sort of bummed him out. For years, Sunset View has started after 9 a.m., later than most schools (some start as early as 7:25 a.m., though schedules vary [1] considerably).

Learning Curve-01 [2]The late start time has allowed parents at Sunset View to do fun stuff, Kelly said, like meet for a morning running group. That helped parents get to know one another and form bonds – you know, community and everything.

Kelly didn’t understand why the change was needed. Parents seemed to love the current start time. He said he asked around, and heard from one parent that decisions about how the school day is structured are based, in large part, around school bus schedules.

It seems weird the district’s transportation department would have such a big say in decisions that affect students and learning, especially because buses are only available for a relatively small portion of kids. And unless students qualify for free busing, parents pay an annual fee of $500 per child ($250 for additional kids in family).

I wanted to see how much truth there was to the idea, so I reached out to the district on this and a related question:

Question: Why do high schools start so damn early when all studies show that teenagers do not do well when they have to get up early? – Melanie Lucero, San Diego Unified parent

It turns out, Kelly, your friend was right. Schools have some say over when the day starts, but bus schedules really do factor heavily into what time the school day starts.

A few years back, when a school board member in Fairfax, Va., started pushing for a later start [3] to the school day, this was the biggest barrier she ran into. She discovered that in order to get the most out of their school buses, districts often make multiple runs to pick kids up and bring them to school.

To allow time for that, districts will stagger school start times. And some schools have to draw the short, early straw.

San Diego Unified does it the same way. District spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer told me the district runs buses in “two-tiers,” so that one bus services two schools. There’s a “no-go” time period between 7:40 a.m. and 8:20 a.m., to allow for the stagger.

Still, even if limited resources mean limited buses and require the stagger, it doesn’t explain why that can’t all start later. I mean, starting the bus routes at 8 a.m. instead of 6:30 or 7 wouldn’t still accomplish the same thing?

A later start seems to make sense. If they started closer to 9, parents could drop kids off on their way to work instead of making two trips. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends [4] that schools start no earlier than 8:30, given research that shows teenagers are chronically unrested.

But high schools tend to have the earliest start times. So what gives?

Kroemer said we have to consider all the after-school activities high-schoolers take part in –drama, sports, yearbook. Kids need time to do that – and, as it is, a lot of them don’t get home until around suppertime. And they still need time to do homework. HOMEWORK.

Essentially, Kroemer is saying that if we pushed back the start of the school, days wouldn’t end for students until ridiculous hours. “It’s hard to fully understand it until you have a teenager in high school,” she said.

Teachers, too, need those after-school hours to plan for the next day, or work with their colleagues in professional development sessions, she said. (Though, it should be noted, teachers also get one half-day a week [5] to do some of those things).

And, while Kroemer didn’t say so, you have to wonder whether school days start early simply because that’s the way things have always been done, even if the decision wasn’t based on what’s best for learning.

Ed Reads of the Week

• My Free-Range Parenting Manifesto [6] (Politico)

In 2009, Lenore Skenazy became one of the most controversial moms in America. Not because she was urging other parents to clobber their kids, or threaten to burn their stuffed animals if they didn’t master piano.

No, she says. It was this: “Actually, my message was — and is — this: Our kids are just as safe and smart as we were when we were young. There’s no reason to suddenly be afraid of everything they do, see, eat, wear, hear, touch, read, watch, lick, play or hug.”

Enter free-range parenting [7], the idea championed by Skenazy that parents should let their kids explore, play, buzz round town with little to no adult supervision. That notion is simply too radical for most parents – who are essentially imprisoned (and imprison their kids) thanks to their own paranoia, she writes.

As a parent, it’s impossible to read this without an emotional reaction – either rooting her on, or shaking your head.

Personally, I’m glad she wrote this, if nothing else because it helps assuage my own, ever-present fear as a parent.

• You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile. You Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone. What Do You Do Now? [8] (Medium)

Here’s one response to Skenazy’s happy-go-lucky parenting style. This story isn’t brand new – it was published last August – but it made The Atlantic’s recent list of 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism [9].

I owe you a trigger warning. If you click this link, it will make you very uncomfortable. I don’t say that so much because of the topic – although, to be sure, it includes descriptions of horrible, terrible things. What I found most troubling about it is that I felt sympathy for one of the subjects in the story, a young man who knows there is something disturbing about him, but has virtually nowhere to turn for help.

• Conor Williams: No Pressure on States Means No Changes for Underserved Kids [10] (The Seventy Four)

Conor Williams is my bro. If I drank beer, I would drink one with him. For sure, he’s an academic, and has the intellectual horsepower to go wonky on you at any minute. But he also has an ability to make smart points on dense topics, using accessible language.

More than that, I like how he’s willing to cut across the grain common perception. For example, while the rage in education circles right now is to bash No Child Left Behind, and point out the damage that’s been done to schools facing sanctions for failing to make academic progress, Williams makes a contrary point, using California as an example: “If systems — education among them — aren’t required to do new and/or difficult things, they won’t.”