Globe and Mail

What's all the rush to get to school?

Some parents, tired of hurrying around every morning, believe classes start and end much too early

ANDRÉ PICARD
The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 8, 1999

Montreal -- Madhuri Kumar opens her eyes and glances at the alarm clock. It's 6:59. She has one luxurious minute before it goes off and the mad dash to get ready for school officially begins.

She takes a bath, dries her hair, dresses, changes her mind, dresses again and heads into the kitchen, where she cranks up the radio. Her father, who sets his alarm for 15 minutes later, is stumbling groggily across the apartment.

A chef and restaurateur, Nantha Kumar normally handles knives deftly, but, at this time of the day, it is all he can do to clumsily cut and skin a melon.

"What's the big rush to start school early in the morning?" he asks no one in particular. "It's crazy. We're not farmers who get up with the sun."

Across Canada, classes begin around 8:30 a.m., there is lunch time and a couple of recesses, then children leave (likely an empty home or some form of child care) around 3:30 p.m.

Despite dramatic changes in the work life (self-employment, shift work) and in Canadian family life (working mothers, single parenthood, permissiveness with children) those hours, give or take a few minutes, have held fast for more than a century.

Nobody is sure why.

"The glib answer is that it's tradition," said William Smith, director of the office of research in educational policy at McGill University.

"Why does the school day look like it does? It's a good question, but I don't know of any research that has been done on the topic," he said.

In fact, the only academic The Globe and Mail could unearth who has taken a strong stand on school hours is Stanley Coren, a sleep researcher at the University of British Columbia, who says teenagers are being deprived of sleep, and proper learning, because school begins too early.

Based on personal experience, Mr. Kumar thinks that the early-to-rise, early-to-bed philosophy is not particularly well suited to children and is obviously a mistake for teenagers.

At 12, Madhuri is still easy enough to rouse in the morning, but her father knows that it will become more of an ordeal come high school. His 15-year-old son, Rajiv, has dropped out of school, in part because he was unable to get out of bed on time for classes (though Mr. Kumar readily acknowledges there are other issues that contributed to his truancy).

As the owner of Nantha's Cuisine, an Indonesian restaurant popular with the night owls in Montreal's hip Plateau district, he tends the kitchen until 1 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends. He often finds himself getting home from work just as his daughter is preparing to leave for Nouvelle-Querbes primary school or, at best, getting only a few hours of shuteye before they sit down together for breakfast.

Mr. Kumar, a divorced father who is his daughter's primary caregiver three days a week, feels that it is important to spend time with Madhuri. He's just not sure that, in the rush for school, it's quality time.

"The race starts as soon as you wake up. It's brutal. Sleeping in, even 10 minutes, can ruin your day," he said.

Alison Carpenter, a sex educator and therapist in private practice, agrees that conforming to the school schedule is frustrating.

With children aged 5 and 3 to get to school and daycare, she and her partner, philosopher Bruce Gilbert, have a hectic morning routine. "Sometimes I feel like the school board is running my life every morning," she said.

The couple try to let the children wake up naturally -- which tends to be around 7:30 or 7:45 a.m. -- but that leaves only an hour for bathing, dressing, eating, chatting, playing and getting to school on time.

Still, Ms. Carpenter considers herself one of the lucky ones. Her son, Ben, attends kindergarten at Louis-Hippolyte-Lafontaine, a primary school that caters to artists and self-employed workers, who dominate the neighbourhood.

Classes begin at 8:55, 40 minutes later than at Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the other primary school nearby. And, unlike many children in Canada, hers are a five-minute walk from daycare and school; they don't have the added complication of taking a bus or car.

"For us, the starting time was definitely a factor in choosing a school. That extra half-hour in the morning gives us time to hug the kids, to spend some time as a family. . . . If we're efficient, they can even play for 10 minutes," she said.

Still, there are days when the parents are putting on their children's shoes as they wolf down breakfast, desperately hoping to avoid the humiliation of a late slip.

Ms. Carpenter feels that waking children and trudging off to school in the pitch dark -- the experience of many parents for the bulk of the school year -- is not good for children's physical or emotional health.

She appreciates that many children are early risers and many parents like the early start.

However, she believes that as the work environment has changed -- she works at home with a clientele of late risers such as university students and her spouse commutes more than an hour to give lectures later in the day -- so, too, should the school day.

"I guess the issue for me is choice. At Ben's school, they have three kindergarten classes. Why not stagger the hours -- they can start at 8, 9 and 10 -- and let parents choose what's best for their kids?" Ms. Carpenter asked.

But no sooner does she toss out the question than she answers it: "Apparently, the world doesn't work that."

Indeed, it does not.

Prof. Smith said the combination of tradition, labour agreements, legislation, and transportation contracts leaves school hours virtually carved in stone. "Ultimately, the precise times for school beginning and ending are determined today by transportation arrangements, by how cheaply school boards can bus children to school," he said.

In Quebec, primary-school pupils, with the exception of those in kindergarten, must receive a minimum of 23.5 hours of classroom instruction weekly. In secondary school, the figure rises slightly, to 25.5 hours.

Similarly, the school year is quite rigid. Unionized teachers work 200 days between Labour Day and Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. Students, by law, must have 180 days of instruction. That leaves parents to cope with child-care arrangements for 20 professional-development days, in addition to the two months of summer holidays.

Ms. Carpenter, for one, thinks that the school year is too long.

She would like children to get a month off around the holiday season in the way university students do. "I don't agree with this idea that you can only learn in the classroom. Kids should be doing a lot more creative things with their families and in the community," she said.

Mr. Kumar, on the contrary, thinks that more time needs to be spent teaching basic skills, particularly to older children, and if that means extending the school year, so be it.

Madhuri's school is billed as alternative. Three grades share a classroom, and the children work primarily in groups, on projects of interest to them, rather than rote learning.

"Madhuri has great communication skills, but she can't conjugate verbs," her father said. "They should pay a little more attention to those kind of things, and a little less on whether you're five minutes late for school."

Mr. Kumar thinks that the school day should start and finish later.

"Madhuri gets out of school at 3:35. On Wednesday, it's 1:45. Who's that convenient for? What working parent or what single parent can pick up their kids at 2 or 3 in the afternoon?" he asked. (On Wednesday, students get out early to accommodate a weekly faculty meeting.)

The growing number of dual-income families and single parents, combined with school hours forged when Canada was an agricultural nation, has created the phenomenon of latch-key kids, with tens of thousands of children alone at home or in unregulated child care until their parents return from work.

Quebec has responded to this problem by guaranteeing low-cost after-school programs in every primary school. Most charge $5 a day, but because the school program is administered by the Ministry of Education, not the Ministry of Families, that rate is not ensured.

Madhuri has opted out of after-school care, preferring to go home and watch the soaps or hang out with friends. (And now, at her parents' insistence, doing her homework with a tutor.)

Ms. Carpenter said after-school care allows her to put in a decent day's work. Ben's "full-day" kindergarten ends at 2:40 p.m. and he goes straight to the daycare program until 5 p.m.

While she is careful not to blame teachers -- "I know they're still there working at 5 o'clock and probably at home at night" -- she finds school-ending time as problematic as school-start times.

Yet, next year, when Ben graduates to Grade 1 and moves to a new school, her scheduling woes will be worse. FACE, a school with an arts-heavy curriculum, is a little farther away and a bus will pick up the boy at 7:15 a.m. -- earlier than the family actually gets out of bed now.

Ms. Carpenter shuddered at the thought.

She does not understand why school cannot be as flexible as daycare. Her daughter, Abby, can arrive there any time between 7:30 and 10:30 a.m. and leave as late as 6 p.m.

"I sometimes sit back and say: 'Why does it have to be like this? Why do schools have to be so rigid when everything else in society in becoming more flexible?' Why do we have to put ourselves through this torture every morning because of some stupid tradition?"

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