Six-year-old Liam Biggs looks forward to playing basketball twice a week at the YMCA.
But after nearly eight hours at school and a rushed dinner at home or in the car, he sometimes falls asleep on his way to practices or games.
“He loves to do it, so we want to be supportive and give him those opportunities,” said Liam’s mother, Rachel Biggs.
“But at some point, as parents, when do we call timeout and say, ‘This is not the year’ …? This new schedule has just been mentally and emotionally and physically taxing on everybody.”
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The Wichita school district, as part of a $3 million budget cut last year, trimmed 15 days from the calendar and added 30 minutes to each school day – a move that means Liam and his classmates have class from 9 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. Students who ride buses often aren’t home before 5:15.
About midway through the first year under the new schedule, many parents, teachers and others say the transition has been more challenging than expected. Students are tired. Family time is scarce. After-school activities and appointments are harder to arrange.
In a recent survey pegged to the district’s search for a new superintendent, some respondents pointed to longer days as a “critical issue” facing Wichita schools. In October, a focus group of high school students said the revised calendar has meant more homework, less free time and a more frantic pace in many classes.
“My kids and I hate it. We absolutely hate it,” said Sara Ornelas, a mother of two students at McLean Elementary.
District officials say they’ve heard concerns and are collecting data on the effect of longer days on student achievement, behavior and attendance. In coming weeks, the district plans to formally survey families about the new schedule.
But they’re not ready to recommend a change, mostly because ditching the plan would require finding $3 million elsewhere in the budget.
Wichita district officials say they’ve heard concerns and are collecting data. But they’re not ready to recommend a change, mostly because ditching the plan would require finding $3 million elsewhere in the budget.
“People are concerned that if we don’t do this, we’ll have to dig deeper,” said Alicia Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools. “But we definitely are continuing to collect data and will be paying attention to that.”
Rachel Biggs, whose son Liam is a first-grader at Seltzer Elementary School, said she didn’t think adding a half-hour to the school day would make that much of a difference.
Last spring, she and her husband, a high school history teacher, considered the change preferable to other budget cuts floated by the district, such as eliminating elementary librarians and outsourcing custodial services.
Once the school year started, though, negative effects of the longer days were immediate and astounding, she said.
“Everything is more rushed, more frantic,” Biggs said. “I think it has stunted some of their ability just to be free.”
Everything is more rushed, more frantic. I think it has stunted some of their ability just to be free.
Rachel Biggs, mother of a Wichita first-grader
Liam can’t attend a monthly Lego Club at the Andover Public Library because it starts at 4 p.m., she said. The family decided against after-school classes at The Art Park because twice-a-week basketball practice is all they can handle. The new schedule makes evening church activities challenging as well.
Most days, Biggs said, there isn’t enough daylight between school and dinner for Liam and his younger siblings to ride bikes or play outside.
“We try to be positive and make the best of any situation, but I would say we’re longing for the day that hopefully it changes back,” she said.
“We hope and pray that next year there might be some sort of other option that would allow us to regain a bit of normalcy and balance and margin for the kiddos.”
Budget options unclear
Under the current schedule, the release time for Wichita elementary schools is significantly later than other schools in the area. It’s about an hour later than schools in Derby, Maize, Andover and Valley Center. Haysville elementary schools release at 3:50 p.m. and Goddard at 4:01 p.m.
For most Wichita middle and high school students, whose school day goes from 8 a.m. to 3:40 p.m., the longer day isn’t as much of a concern as the loss of 15 instructional days, said Joy Eakins, a school board member and parent of a middle-schooler.
“There’s more homework coming home,” Eakins said. “With the fewer days, people are trying to get that material covered, and that’s what they’re having to do.”
Eakins was the sole vote against the revised schedule last spring, arguing that outsourcing custodial services was a better option. Since then, she says, she has heard from numerous parents who want the board to reconsider the calendar.
But with Kansas facing a projected $900 million budget shortfall over the next 18 months, the district’s budget picture is uncertain and unlikely to get better.
Wichita spends about $200,000 a day for buses. It spends another $50,000 a day on air-conditioning in the late summer, when the school year usually begins.
“We don’t even know what’s going to happen with (funding for) the end of this school year, so that makes it very difficult,” Eakins said.
Board member Barbara Fuller agrees, but says the overwhelming message from her constituents is against the longer school days. Besides having less time for family and after-school activities, longer breaks at Thanksgiving and Christmas left working parents scrambling even more to arrange child care.
“I didn’t see it as a big thing, and I regret it,” Fuller said. “People really don’t like it, and I understand that.”
I didn’t see it as a big thing, and I regret it. People really don’t like it, and I understand that.
Barbara Fuller, Wichita school board member
Fuller said she received a heartfelt letter from a teacher recently that said, “We shouldn’t be doing this to kids. It’s wrong.”
She said she feels the same way when she sees buses full of elementary school children heading home during evening rush hour.
“I can look in there and see the tops of their little foreheads, and I think: That’s just too long of a day for those little ones – and even the little-bit-bigger ones.”
‘Just not enough time’
Another unintended consequence of the new schedule: At some schools, the 4:40 p.m. dismissal has further delayed pickup times for families who can’t or don’t want to pay for supervised after-school care. That means school staff members stay until 5 p.m. or later to supervise kids while they wait for their rides.
It also means teachers get home later – often too late for an evening exercise class or to prepare anything other than a fast-food dinner.
Michelle McKenzie, a child care provider and the mother of a first-grader at Peterson Elementary, said the new schedule has been “a struggle for everybody.” Her son and other children are “exhausted and absolutely starving” when she picks them up from school, she said.
Teachers petition parents for snack donations, but it’s a struggle to keep kids’ tummies from growling during the long stretch after lunch. Elementary schools added a 15-minute recess to the school day, responding to recent parent concerns that children don’t have enough free time.
“If you really look at it, he has a longer work day than most people work, and he’s 7,” McKenzie said. “And I just hate that for him.”
If you really look at it, he has a longer work day than most people work, and he’s 7. And I just hate that for him.
Michelle McKenzie, mother of a Wichita first-grader
Kate Pepper, owner of The Art Park Wichita and Monart School of Art, said fewer Wichita public school families have enrolled in her after-school programs this year. Longer days have made it harder for parents to get kids to dance classes or piano lessons, she said, or to schedule appointments with speech therapists, audiologists or other specialists without missing school.
“There’s just not enough time for anyone to do anything,” Pepper said. “I haven’t heard one single person jump for joy at this new schedule or say they think it’s great.”
Jamie Smartt, the mother of two students at Hyde Elementary, said she understands the budget bind that district leaders are in, but she hopes they look for other ways to cut costs.
“I really hope they consider the well-being of the kids,” Smartt said. “They need to be able to be kids and not just be rushed through their evenings.
“They need to have time to decompress, to be with their family, and even, heaven forbid, have nothing to do.”