How lunch detentions and Healthy Start Times impact tardiness.
Thomas Jefferson High School currently starts classes at 7:30 a.m.. A common clarification by teachers and administrators is that the 7:30 am start time means “butts in seats” by 7:30 and does not mean having students running in at 7:31. This policy has existed for years at TJ, so it might be surprising to see a line of students stretching from the front office windows into the hallways from 7:30 to 7:45 a.m.. However, this line in the early mornings isn’t new to administrators.
The expert on Thomas Jefferson tardies is Bridget Couch, a member of the Restorative Justice team. She explained that the trends of lateness have been improving in 2023, as tardies “haven’t been as bad as prior years. Last year was horrible, but this year hasn’t been as bad.” Students around TJ are taking note of these policies because of consequences such as lunch detentions and Saturday school. While these ramifications may seem new, lunch detention has always been the punishment for tardiness. But it hasn’t been strictly enforced in recent years because the Restorative Justice team has had its hands full with post-COVID students forgetting general rules. Couch recalled, “last year was a hectic year post-COVID. Transitioning with freshmen is always hard. But last year’s freshmen were over the top. Last year was so strange. So we were tied up in trying to discipline other stuff.”
The return of lunch detention caught many students’ attention when passes were sent to their 4th-period classes informing them to attend. Tardies stalled dramatically when it was consistently assigned. But students noticed that sometimes, two classmates could miss the same class, but only one would get lunch detention. This system frustrated students who wanted to know how to avoid getting lunch detention, and the simple answer is: don’t miss class. One tardy enters a student into the lunch detention lottery. Every day, Couch gets a list of students who were tardy to one class. “Sometimes, my list says 250 kids, so I can’t give 250 kids lunch detention because we are not equipped to do it. So sometimes I pull up a list that says two or more [tardies]. If that list is too short I’ll go back to the list that says one tardy and go through attendance records and see how many times you’ve ditched or had a truancy,” she explained while displaying the extensive list of names on her computer.
One concern about lunch detention is students not being able to have time to eat. But Dean of Culture Emily Lupo explained, “we used to allow students to eat in lunch detention, but students disrespected the space and have left it really messy and gross, so we decided that there wouldn’t be any more food in there. But students still have time to eat. We do lunch detention for the first 20 minutes, and that gives them 20 more minutes to eat.” Bringing a packed lunch or eating in the cafeteria still gives students access to lunch, but Lupo logically concluded, “if you go out to lunch, you won’t be going out that day.” The administration has made it clear that the easiest way to avoid lunch detention is to simply go to class.
Still, some students don’t understand the logic behind not being allowed into class after being 20 minutes late and waiting in a separate room for the period. Couch explained, “we’re not even saying that you can’t be tardy, but when you miss 20 minutes of instructional time you’ve missed directions and have to disturb you and say, ‘Hey what are we doing?’” Recently, Denver Public Schools has recognized the issue of tardies, especially in the morning. To combat this, they proposed the Healthy Start Times resolution, which states that “beginning no later than the start of the 2022-23 school year, the Superintendent shall not start school programs for middle school and high school, for both district-managed and charters, earlier than 8:20 a.m..” The Healthy Start Times Resolution allows students to get more sleep and show up to school later for mental health reasons. But Couch is skeptical of reducing tardiness solely based on later start times. “Ms. Lupo and I went to a different school, and it had a start time of about 8:30 a.m., and kids were still coming in late. I mean, it’s a good thing to get a little extra sleep, but I don’t know if it will make a difference because we’re talking about habits now.” The theme of habits is emphasized in these conversations. There will always be things that students have to prepare for in the professional world. Without the right habits, students will continue to be late.
The ultimate time management motivation is avoiding Saturday school. This is assigned when a student has 25 or more tardies in one month. Letters are sent home to students a week before they must come in from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. on a Saturday. Most students use this time to catch up on schoolwork they missed in class or clean up classrooms. Lupo said, “there is usually some element of community work that they do when they’re there.” But the threat of Saturday school doesn’t stop all students from running late.
Couch summed up the issue when she said, “tardies happen so much because we act nonchalant, we have no umph to make us move our feet faster. We’re just going nowhere slow.” Lunch detentions and Healthy Start Times are two ways that Denver Public Schools have been trying to get students to school on time. Healthy Start Times attempts to support students’ mental health by allowing them more sleep while lunch detention aims to hold students accountable and build new habits for students. Starting next year administrators will see how Healthy Start Times impact students’ ability to get to class on time; If not, lunch detentions will continue to encourage students to build new habits.