Adjust your morning schedules: Wichita schools will start earlier

Northeast Magnet High School, along with other Wichita public schools, will have earlier start times beginning in the fall. (Feb 11, 2013)
Northeast Magnet High School, along with other Wichita public schools, will have earlier start times beginning in the fall. (Feb 11, 2013) File photo

The morning school bell will ring 10 minutes earlier for Wichita students this fall after school board members on Monday approved a plan intended to get elementary students out of class before the afternoon rush hour.

That means Northeast Magnet High School and several magnet middle schools will start at 6:50 a.m. Most secondary and K-8 schools will start at 7:50 a.m., and most elementary schools will begin at 8:50 a.m.

Schools also will release students 10 minutes earlier – at 2:30, 3:30 or 4:30 p.m.

Superintendent John Allison, during his last board meeting as the Wichita schools chief, said his recommendation was the only option for getting elementary school students home earlier “without increasing, exponentially, our transportation costs or having other impacts.”

Allison said earlier start times could negatively affect some schools, however.

“We’ll need to monitor this. I do think it has the potential of leading to increased tardies or potential absences” at schools with 6:50 a.m. start times, he said. Some students will have to catch buses before 6 a.m.

“There isn’t a win-win-win for all three tiers” of school start times, Allison said.

The board voted 4-0 in favor of the schedule shift. Board members Lynn Rogers, Barbara Fuller and Joy Eakins were absent.

Board member Betty Arnold said the plan isn’t ideal but was the best option. In an online survey conducted by the district, a majority of elementary school parents expressed concern about the longer school day, and many suggested modifying start times to end school earlier.

“There’s no perfect solution that’s going to please everyone,” Arnold said. “This, however, appears to be the lesser of two evils.”

Last year, the Wichita district trimmed 15 days from the school year and made school days longer to save about $3 million on transportation, utilities and other costs. Many parents, teachers and others said the change was more challenging than expected, especially for some young students on buses who got home after 5:30 p.m.

Allison said his staff explored the option of keeping secondary magnet schools at a 7 a.m. start. But shortening the travel time between the first- and second-tier schools would have required about 50 additional buses, at a cost of about $1.5 million, he said.

Five Wichita magnet schools – Northeast Magnet High School, Allison Middle School, Brooks Middle School, Jardine Middle School and Mayberry Middle School – will start at 6:50 a.m. So will Gateway Alternative, a program for middle and high school students who have been suspended or expelled from their assigned school.

Matt Creasman, principal of Northeast Magnet, said starting school earlier likely will be a challenge for his students and staff.

“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “I don’t think anybody thinks it’s a good idea to start school at 6:50 a.m., but I think that this is a function of money.

“The school district’s trying to figure out a way to manage the shortened year the best they can without having elementary kids get home after dark. … For years, we’ve not had adequate funding, and we’ve now reached the point where it’s actually impacting people’s lives.”

Last spring, district leaders proposed moving several schools’ start times from 8 a.m. to 7 a.m. to more evenly distribute buses and cut transportation costs. Many families balked, and the leaders of Start School Later, a Maryland-based advocacy group, called the proposal “unconscionable.”

They cited a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics that indicated American teens are sleep deprived, a condition that threatens their physical and mental health, safety and academic performance.

During a dialogue session with the superintendent last fall, several Wichita high school students expressed frustration over the abbreviated school year, which they said meant more homework and a frantic pace in many classes. But several from early-start schools said they liked getting out of school early because they had more time for after-school activities or part-time jobs.

So far, early starts haven’t hampered most magnet schools’ popularity. Northeast Magnet, which once again made the list of top 10 public high schools in Kansas by U.S. News and World Report, consistently has more applicants than available slots.

Creasman, the Northeast Magnet principal, said he will get word to families as soon as possible that students will be catching buses and starting school even earlier this fall.

“I don’t know anybody who wants to do this,” he said. “I think people see this as a workable solution with what we have.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias