COLUMBIA — Every morning, 11-year-old Ethan Wiedmier wakes up before the sun rises.
This has been the habit of Columbia's elementary and middle school students since August, when Columbia Public Schools switched to a new, three-tier bus schedule, which required a districtwide change in school start times. Now, high schools start at 9 a.m., and middle and elementary schools start earlier, some as early as 7:30.
The new start and dismissal times have been embraced by some families because of their convenience and the extra sleep time for high schoolers, while others with younger children are still trying to find a balance between new extracurricular schedules and waking up earlier.
For the Wiedmiers, that means getting up at 6 a.m. so Ethan can make the 6:45 a.m. bus.
"And even then, there's a 10-minute window, so (by) 6:35 he has to be ready and standing outside," his mother, Danielle Wiedmier, said.
Her fifth-grade daughter, Erin, catches the bus at 7:30 a.m., "which is still pretty early for a 10-year-old," Wiedmier said.
Nicole Clemens, a teacher at Rock Bridge High School, leaves her house at 6:15 each morning to make it to school in time to teach the girls' dance team, leaving her husband to get their daughter, Ashlyn, 8, and their son, Elliot, 3, ready for the day.
"Ideally, I'd add about three more hours to the day," Clemens said. "We lucked out in that Ashlyn doesn't go to a 7:30 start. That would have been exponentially more difficult, so I'm thankful for that."
The earlier wake-up times, however, end up cutting into family time in the morning.
"When Ethan started junior high, we knew it would be earlier because they've always started earlier," Danielle Wiedmier said. "But instead of getting up at a time that we can eat breakfast together, he has to rush around."
The new start times, though, do fit with some families' schedules. For families that need after-school care, groups such as Adventure Club, which provides educational activities for students after school is over, are available.
"We have loved the earlier start time for Parkade," said Diana Carter, who has a son in second grade. "School starts at 8:20 but drop off begins at 8:05. The new elementary start time has allowed us to save money, as we no longer need to use before-school care. We use Adventure Club at the school for after-school care."
Earlier in the year, Carter also cared for a junior at Hickman High School.
"My husband and I both need to get to work before Hickman's start time, so our 17-year-old foster placement was dropped off early each morning by my husband on his way to work," she said. "That worked out well, actually, as she was able to use a school computer for homework and have breakfast at school."
Jonathan Sessions, a Columbia School Board member who supported the new start times, explained the later high school times were approved because teenagers naturally have a later sleep schedule than young children do.
"When I was at Hickman, our first class started at 7:50, but we had all sorts of activities before school, some that started at 6 a.m.," he said. "Now, it's easier for those things to happen without being so early."
Clemens has noticed a difference in her students this year, at both the 9 a.m. start time and the 4:05 p.m. end time.
"They're all there first hour, they're on time, for the most part they are ready, really mentally ready to go, at 9," she said. "It seems like most kids are taking advantage of that extra time in the morning, which I love. On the flip side, my last class is exhausted. As soon as 4 hits, those last five minutes are gone. It is everything we can do to keep them in the room because they get so squirrelly."
Teachers have been keeping the early mental checkout in mind when planning lessons for the last classes of the day, Clemens said.
"We're going to lose them, so we need to give them what they absolutely need the most first," she said. "With all they have to do after school, mentally 4 should be their own time, and I think that's a harder adjustment than the morning thing."
Some parents are concerned that the new high school times aren't as beneficial as they seem.
"I would say the high school students are the ones that need to be starting early," Wiedmier said. "That's sort of my big issue."
She is worried that student-athletes are being pulled out of school too early because they need to make it to some competitions and away games, which might affect their time in school and their studies.
"In theory, they can use that extra time in the morning to get caught up," Clemens said. "But this is high school, and the reality is that will work for some but not others."
Wiedmier said high school students need to be prepared for college or the work force.
"The average workday starts at 8, so I think we're doing a disservice being like, 'Oh, hey, come to school at 9,' so I just don't think we're preparing them to join the workforce," Wiedmier said. "High school is when it counts. I'm not saying the other grades don't matter, but high school determines a lot more than elementary and middle school."
After school, Clemens leaves to pick up her son from a day care she chose for its proximity to Rock Bridge.
"I get out of here as fast as I can, but we have 2,000-something kids in this school, and everybody wants to drive, so the parking lot is insane," she said.
After navigating Providence Road, which tends to be jammed with cars in the later afternoon, Clemens picks up her daughter from Grant Elementary School, where she attends after-school care.
"Adventure Club has been awesome working with us," she said. "I fly in, and they're like 'Ashlyn, GO!' and we fly out. Rock Bridge is so good, too. Sometimes I have to bring my kids to practice in the mornings, or they run around the building while I grade on the weekends. So one of the benefits of working in the district is that the district gets it, and I'm not sure everyone is quite as lucky."
With about 1,000 children enrolled in the program, many other parents are using Adventure Club as after-school care now that the elementary schools are getting out so early. However, some parents have also seen increases in the cost — about $80 per month for the extra time.
Tara Shade, a parent with two children at Cedar Ridge Elementary School, pays $450 per month for them to attend Adventure Club, even though Cedar Ridge ends only 20 minutes earlier than it did last year.
"Our monthly budget has certainly taken a hit," Shade said. "I've polled several friends who live in other districts, and they can't believe how much we have to pay. My family is considering finding other arrangements starting in November."
"Adventure Club was just one more expense on the plate," she said. "But it's not like Ashlyn is old enough to be home by herself yet."
The Wiedmier family has other ways of staying busy after school.
"My kids are year-round athletes, and my son plays the trumpet, so they do stuff like that," Wiedmier said. "It's pretty rough, but I don't want my kids sitting at home playing video games and not socially interacting, so we have a rule at our house where there is no TV on a school night or after 6 on Sundays. You don't watch TV or play video games or be on the computer unless it's for homework."
After picking up her daughter up from Adventure Club, Clemens takes her to gymnastics, the other activity she picked.
"Her job is to, before she can have any fun with her friends, she has to ... eat dinner, do her homework, and then she can play," Clemens said. "So she doesn't always have time to get to the play part."
The early days quickly turn into late nights.
For Clemens, gymnastics is over at 8:15 p.m., "so it's 8:30 before we even walk in the door, and that used to be her bedtime, but now we stay up later to get ready for the next day and maybe have a snack," she said.
The Wiedmiers are familiar with late nights as well. Ethan's football practice goes until 7:30, "and by the time we get home, he still has to shower and eat dinner, so he's never in bed by 9," Wiedmier said. "It has been pretty rough on him.
"For example, the other night he had a game that went until 9. While we had fed everyone else, obviously he couldn't eat before the game without getting sick on the field, so he ate afterward at 9:20 when we got home," she said. "Luckily he has a little bit of time between school and practice, but not very much."
Wiedmier and Clemens usually don't call it a night until much later. Even then, there are still dishes to do, lunches to make and kids to tuck into bed.
"Sometimes you just have to say, 'Forget it! We're not going to bed on time' while we snuggle and watch an episode of TV," Clemens said. "We'll pay for that tomorrow, maybe, but right then we need that."
With a day so packed, sometimes Clemens and her family have had to plan the day in the car, which she says has made them more organized and forced the whole family to do little things like pack lunches and pick out clothes the night before.
"Otherwise you can't catch up," she said. "It makes the weekends weird, too, because we spend all day Saturday just catching up on life — doing laundry, grading papers, that kind of stuff — which leaves maybe one day a week to do family things.
"Now it's a deliberate 'OK, we're not scheduling anything because we will do something as a family. It might be fun and it might be doing laundry, but darn it, we're going to do it together because I haven't seen you in a while.'"
Sunday is the day the Wiedmiers use to catch up on family time, provided her son doesn't have a football game. They have other ways of staying connected, too.
"Some people are like, 'I can't believe you eat dinner at 8,'" Wiedmier said. "But we eat as a family, and we do it at the table, not in front of a TV. We do that so we have time to talk together and have time with our kids without distractions in the background."
Both Wiedmier's and Clemens' husbands work long hours, making family time especially difficult to plan.
"Sometimes we'll go days without seeing each other," Clemens said. "We just kind of pass in the night, or he'll make everyone's lunches, and that's how I'll know he was home. It's a lot, and we haven't fallen into a good groove yet. I'm waiting for that."
Board member Sessions is confident that everything will work out, even for the families with packed schedules.
"This is the first year, and there have been quite a bit of changes, but schedules adapt," he said. "Family schedules have changed a lot, but it will all fall into place eventually. Within a couple of years, it'll be old-hat."
Clemens is just grateful for the little things that make life a little easier. But for now, "every day is like this," she said. "Every day is really long."
Our newsroom’s education team is interested in hearing about more families’ experiences with the new school times. How have your schedules and routines changed? Comment below, or email submissions@ColumbiaMissourian.com.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.