Death to After-School Activities!
High school ends early. Depending on the day of the week, students in California see their day end anywhere from 1:30 to 2:30 to 3:15 to times as late as 4:20 for so-called “seventh period” classes. There are a few institutional reasons for this, chief among them the desire of athletics departments to begin before dark, though also including a shortage of school buses and the necessity of busing different age groups at different times. In places like the Bay Area (and potentially Los Angeles) which have a public transit infrastructure, we could solve the school bus shortage problem by giving each student a Tap or Clipper Card — certainly kids in New York are not strangers to the subway, and treating public transit as though it’s undesirable or unsafe for children feeds our crippling car-centrism. What caution we might exercise on behalf of the safety of those who attend elementary or middle school is frankly excessive applied to high school students.
However, beyond these politics within the education system, the motivation for early dismissals from school (and, consequently, early start times) seems to center around the suburban fantasy about wholesome after-school activities. The problem is that the science is increasingly clear that early start times conflict with the natural sleep patterns of teens, which prefer to sleep until approximately 8:00 am. Since a clear majority of high-schoolers report being consistently tired at school, and at least 15% report actually sleeping while at school, I think the benefit of rolling back the beginning of high school to 9:00 am would outweigh the lost time for after-school activities, which strike me as more fantasy than tangible benefit. What, after all, means more to you — that your kid can fence, or that your kid is free of sleep deprivation?
Every other profession works 9-to-5; there is no reason this would be anything other than popular among teachers, particularly young, energetic teachers with social lives. It would also eliminate the need for childcare in the afternoons, as students would arrive home just in time for dinner, would be able to do homework in the evening, when their teenage mind is at its most alert, and would, going to bed at 11pm or midnight, have time for a full eight hours or more before the world would next demand their attention.
This shifting of the school day would also have massive potential benefits for low-income children, whose academic problems are often related to malnutrition. A 9am start time leaves a comfortable window for school breakfast, as a 7:30am start time would not. (Has anyone ever enjoyed breakfast at 6:45 am?) A 5:00pm dismissal, too, would make more natural a school dinner program, so that students would not be hungry as they studied for the next day’s classes. A late dismissal would leave furthermore fewer hours of teens wandering around cities wherein potentially to find trouble.
The case for 9-to-5 high school schedules is, to my mind, open-and-shut in the presence of a transit system capable of taking students from home to school. In such locations, parents (and citizens!) should lobby their city councilmembers and county supervisors to create laws compelling school districts to begin academic instruction no earlier than 9:00 am. If optional athletic, drama, or other programs wish to begin prior to that time rather than during evenings, that is surely something students and families (and schools) could decide on their own. With respect to academics, though, schools and those who administer them have demonstrated themselves unable to solve the unususally simple problem of promoting, rather than inhibiting, adequate sleep among their students. In the face of this, there is no alternative to civic action.