8:15 a.m. A few cars are lined up in front of Jackson Elementary School, kids piling out with backpacks. The walking school bus strolls up and drops off a handful of kids while older students zoom by on bikes.

8:22 a.m. Cars snake around the traffic circle — seven or eight deep — waiting for the line to move.

8:25 a.m. The bell signaling the start of first period rings. A parent in a black SUV swings into the traffic circle and speeds up, only to be stopped by the crawling line of cars filled with students who will find themselves just a hair late to class.

That was the scene in the traffic circle outside the downtown elementary school Tuesday morning, a slightly chaotic jumble of parents and children arriving by bike, car and foot. Some made it several minutes before the first bell, giving them plenty of time to lock their bikes and stroll to their classroom. Others hustled through the door in the nick of time; several were inevitably late.

Fifty cars drove up to the front of the school in the 10 minutes ahead of the bell, giving each an average of 12 seconds to stop, allow the kids to gather their school bags, say goodbye and drive away. Five cars snuck in during the five minutes following the first bell. The morning congestion is a leading cause of what some elementary school principals say is a big problem.

“Most of our tardies are five minutes or less late,” Jackson Elementary School Principal Tracy Poduska said. “They’re squeaking in just past the bell.”

According to Teton County School District No. 1 data, students are tardy in higher numbers at the elementary schools. Jackson Elementary led the way during the 2018-19 school year with a tardy rate of 8.43%, while Colter Elementary School students were tardy 6.72% of the time (see the graph for numbers on all schools).

Poduska said one reason the numbers trend higher at the elementary schools is due to how late students are counted. At the middle and high schools, tardiness is counted every period. Students have more opportunities to be counted on time, so they would have to be late to several classes per week to match the younger students’ rates. Elementary school students are counted as on time or late only at the start of the day, lending more weight to each tardy morning.

Principals at the county’s three largest elementary schools said the higher rates can’t be explained away with math alone.

“If we look at the data on the chronically tardy students,” Colter Principal Bo Miller said, “they are not the students that ride the bus.”

Miller, Poduska and Munger Mountain Elementary School Principal Scott Eastman pointed to students who ride their bikes, walk or are taken to school by their parents as the main culprits. Barring breakdowns or random traffic jams, the buses are on time, so by extension students who ride them are on time.

Miller said Colter’s tardiness problems have diminished since Munger Mountain opened, but the same cannot be said for Poduska’s school.

“Prior to Munger Mountain opening we had 600 students,” she said. “We expected last year the drop-off zone would be half as busy, but it was almost as busy.”

Neighborhood schools like Colter and Jackson have a walk-zone around them. Families that live inside them must have their kids walk or ride bikes, or drive them. Especially if they have younger kids, they might opt to drive, but the hassle of getting children out the door and the potential for congestion can make even the most well-intentioned parents late.

Establish a routine

Kids usually know what they need to do to prepare for school in the morning. Get up, wash their faces, brush their teeth, eat breakfast, pack their bags. Rachel Wigglesworth, who teaches parenting classes at her company Growing Great Families, said the consistency is an opportunity to allow kids to take ownership over their mornings.

“You can talk about why it’s a problem with them,” she said. “Bring the child into the process of how to set up the morning routine.”

You can create some kind of chart to show everything the child needs to do, but a reward isn’t necessary, she said. By handing over responsibility to the kids, parents can help them develop the kind of time management skills necessary to juggle sports and extracurricular activities later in their schooling and work schedules as adults.

Teaching children to arrive on time isn’t simply a lesson for later in life, however. It’s imperative to their education, the principals say. Teachers have so much to impart to their students in a day that when the bell rings, they don’t waste time. In older grades they begin lessons immediately, and teachers who may not jump right into instruction set expectations and lay out the daily schedule.

Students who are tardy, even by just a couple of minutes, interrupt the instruction and find themselves out of the loop.

“When students come in late, they can be stressed,” Poduska said. “It really puts kids at risk for not getting their day off as part of that classroom community. That’s why we invest so much time in making sure kids are on time.”

The proof

In contrast to the congestion that sometimes occurs at the front door of Jackson Elementary, the mornings at Munger Mountain are placid. Buses start arriving roughly 10 minutes before 8 a.m., and kids can opt to go inside and eat breakfast or play outside under teacher supervision.

The first bell rings at 8:05, and classes start at 8:10. Just 3.34% of students were late at Munger last year, even though its enrollment was 475 students, well above Colter’s 353 and Jackson’s 251.

“It’s primarily because the vast majority ride the bus,” Eastman said.

Munger’s location south of town probably makes the bus the easiest option for most parents, eliminating the desire to let a child sleep 10 more minutes or squeeze in a family walk that could make everyone late. Administrators know parents at the in-town schools don’t always have that option, so they are doing what they can to help.

Miller said Colter started a campaign last year to reward students who were consistently on time. Sometimes the students who self-transported just needed a bit of encouragement, but with chronically late families school administrators reached out to explain why it was so crucial for their kids to be on time.

“Nine times out of 10 that fixes it,” Miller said.

At Jackson Elementary the transportation department adjusted the “walking school bus” routes. Volunteers pick up kids at designated locations and walk them to school if they live in the walk radius, but a popular route along Redmond Street was cut last year. Parents were displeased, and students’ use of the walking bus seemed to slow, so the school tweaked the routes.

“Now we have a slightly modified Redmond route and one that goes by the fairgrounds,” Poduska said. “We still need to see if the popularity is growing from that first year.”

Poduska is also instating a new policy that students can hang out inside if they arrive early. In the past they had the option to play outside, but she thinks that some aren’t interested in outdoor playtime before school. If giving them the option to hang out with their friends will encourage them to arrive early and therefore be in class on time, she wants to give them that chance.

Eastman sees his students wanting to arrive on time, or at least not wanting to be late. Fourth graders start the day with classes they enjoy, and they come excited for school. Missing part of that class would diminish that, he said. But whether the students are starting with a math lesson or something more exciting, the whole day is important.

“We only have a precious six hours and 40 minutes,” Poduska said. “We try to use every minute.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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