Early school: Some families cite sleep deprivation, others 'make it work'

Abbie Veatch, an eighth-grader at Allison Traditional Magnet Middle School, says she has never liked or gotten used to the school’s 7 a.m. start time. (April 1, 2016)
Abbie Veatch, an eighth-grader at Allison Traditional Magnet Middle School, says she has never liked or gotten used to the school’s 7 a.m. start time. (April 1, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Abbie Veatch expected the 7 a.m. bell at Allison Traditional Magnet Middle School to be a challenge, especially coming from Bostic Elementary, which started at 9.

“I was a little scared to do it because I thought I would not be able to get up and stuff,” Abbie said. “People told me it was pretty bad but (that) you got used to it.”

Nearly three years later, Abbie is about to finish eighth grade. She likes her friends, her teachers and her classes at Allison, and she’s looking forward to high school.

But that 7 a.m. start time?

“I still haven’t gotten used to it yet,” she said.

Wichita school district leaders are considering starting nine schools earlier next year, switching their start times from 8 a.m. to 7 a.m. to more evenly distribute buses and cut the transportation budget.

On the list are three K-8 schools – Gordon Parks, Horace Mann and Christa McAuliffe – and Robinson Middle School, home to a districtwide pre-International Baccalaureate magnet program. The district also could move up start times at five special-program schools: Chisholm Life Skills, Gateway, Greiffenstein, Sowers and Wells.

Some students, parents and school leaders say changing start times isn’t ideal, but it’s preferable to other potential budget cuts, such as laying off teachers or eliminating programs. A handful of magnet schools have started at 7 a.m. for at least a decade.

“It’s not optimal, but we’d make it work,” said Trish Hileman, whose son attends Christa McAuliffe in southeast Wichita. “I don’t want to see 40 kids to a classroom, and I’m not sure what other options they really have.”

Others, including the leaders of Start School Later, a Maryland-based advocacy group, called the Wichita proposal “unconscionable.”

They cite a growing body of research that indicates American teens are sleep deprived, a condition that threatens their physical and mental health, safety and academic performance.

“Clearly, in this case, people don’t think it matters all that much what time kids are going to school,” said Terra Ziporyn Snider, executive director of Start School Later. “They don’t think it matters, so they play around with it.

“And that was excusable in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, because we really didn’t understand much about sleep science. But now we do understand it, which is why it’s appalling to do it.”

Afternoon naps

Vickie Veatch, Abbie’s mom, says she and her two children dreaded the 7 a.m. start at Allison Middle School but chose it anyway because they wanted a traditional magnet program.

“It makes for not-very-nice kids, I have to tell you,” Veatch said. “You take a hard time anyway, especially the teenage years, and then make them get up so early – they are bears.”

You take a hard time anyway, especially the teenage years, and then make them get up so early – they are bears.

Vickie Veatch, Wichita mother

Abbie wakes up each school day at around 6 a.m. and rushes to get to her bus stop by 6:20. During her first couple of classes each morning, “I’m kind of not very awake, and I don’t think really anybody is,” the eighth-grader said.

When school dismisses at 2:10 p.m., she rides home, has a snack and often heads into her bedroom for a 1 1/2- to two-hour nap, she said. Then it’s homework, dinner and other activities during her evening hours, and Abbie falls asleep sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. most days, even if she goes to bed earlier.

“They get into this vicious cycle,” Vickie Veatch said. “I suppose it depends on the kid and the family, but for us, we have not gotten used to it.”

During long weekends or school breaks, “They’re like different kids when they can sleep like normal people,” she said. “In the summer I’m like, ‘Wow, you’re kind of delightful.’ ”

Several parents from early-start schools said their teens regularly nap after school. Some say the schedule works fine; others worry that their children don’t get enough solid sleep.

Kelli Grant’s oldest son, Marquis, didn’t seem too tired his first two years at Allison, she said. Now 14 and an eighth-grader, Marquis shuts down after school and can’t manage homework until he’s slept at least an hour, she said.

“I think that is because he’s really into puberty now, and he’s really growing and his brain is really developing,” said Grant, a health coach.

“I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal, but just looking at teenage development, I do think it’s a big problem,” she said. “I feel like he doesn’t get enough sleep.”

‘A whole new ballgame’

Mitch Linn, principal at Allison, said the 7 a.m. start time can be a challenge for students and families, but most adjust fine. When he visits elementary schools to promote Allison’s program, he makes sure to tell prospective sixth-graders they’d be waking up earlier.

“We tell them this is a whole new ballgame,” Linn said. “They need to get their sleep and get to bed early. We meet with parents and send things out in our newsletters” about healthy sleep habits.

After the first few weeks of school, he said, most families adjust and many grow to appreciate the 2:10 p.m. release time, which allows parents to schedule medical and other appointments at times when their children won’t miss class.

“We haven’t seen any adversarial effects in terms of our kids’ performance,” Linn said.

We haven’t seen any adversarial effects in terms of our kids’ performance.

Mitch Linn, principal at Allison Middle School

Nor has it hampered Allison’s popularity. Every year the school easily fills its 200 sixth-grade slots and usually has a waiting list of 200 or more. Similarly, Northeast Magnet High School, which starts at 7 a.m., consistently has more applicants than available slots.

“It works for the magnet schools. It’s kind of been entrenched for quite a few years now,” Linn said.

Jaclyn McCaleb said her son Matthew, a seventh-grader at Brooks STEM & Arts Magnet, doesn’t mind the early start. He wakes up and gets ready on his own each morning, catching a bus at 6:08 a.m. to get to school before 7.

After school, Matthew has track practice or stays for a recreational program at the school.

“It’s getting him ready to be an adult and get up and get ready for work and everything,” McCaleb said. “I don’t know if he’s the exception, but he seems to like it, and I like it as well.”

Early starts for younger kids

Some schools proposed for the early start next year include kindergarten through fifth grades, which would be a first for the Wichita district.

That would mean parents of 5- and 6-year-olds would have to wake earlier to get them ready, and some youngsters could have to walk to school in the colder, darker pre-dawn hours. Some would be at school nearly 12 hours before working parents could pick them up from after-school latchkey programs.

Mark Koenigsman, president of the PTO at Christa McAuliffe Academy, said that could be a difficult adjustment for many families.

“A lot of the kids in our neighborhood would have to be on a bus at 6:15 in the morning. That means up at 5:30 in the morning. Then what time do they eat lunch?” Koenigsman said during a PTO discussion at the school. “There’s going to be a cascading effect all through the day.”

Snider, the director of Start School Later, wrote a letter to Wichita superintendent John Allison and Wichita school board members last week, urging them to take earlier start times off the table during budget discussions.

Snider’s group suggests that no school should start before 8 a.m. and that secondary schools should start later, to better coordinate with adolescents’ natural sleep patterns and brain development.

“Plenty of districts have found ways to do this,” she said, pointing to Columbia, Mo., which in 2013 switched high school start times to 8:55 a.m. “It’s not an impossible dream.”

About two years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement urging middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention echoed that call, saying insufficient sleep can contribute to several health risks, including being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and using drugs, as well as poor academic performance.

Students and families may adapt to early start times, Snider said, but short-term economic gains could come at the risk of long-term health problems.

“There are lots and lots of ways to run schools, and it’s ultimately a matter of what you think your priorities are,” Snider said. “We can’t balance school budgets on the backs of kids.”

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

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