ST. PETERSBURG — Kashif Haynes sits shotgun in the idling Honda Civic, wide awake and waiting. His mother, behind the wheel but still in pajamas, not so much.
The Childs Park intersection feels lonely until bus No. 881 appears out of the darkness at 5 a.m., the earliest morning bus pick up in all of Tampa Bay.
This is what Kashif, a 14-year-old freshman, must do every morning to make it to Tarpon Springs High by the 7:05 a.m. opening bell. Along the way, 50 more students from south and mid-Pinellas County will jump on as the bus zigzags north for a 45-mile journey that takes two hours.
Experts on teen health call red-eye pickups like this "unconscionable." They point to mounting evidence that early start times — mixed with the natural rhythms that keep teenagers up at night — are causing mental, emotional and physical harm to teens and society.
But if Kashif's day started much later, like 8:30 a.m., the recommended time on a Pinellas petition signed by 6,000 people, he couldn't make it to Tarpon's Veterinary Science Academy. By then, school district officials say, traffic in Florida's most densely populated county would make such north-south routes too difficult, and they would have to be cut.
Which makes it a question of choices.
For Kashif and thousands of kids like him, Pinellas County's selection of 70 magnets, fundamental schools and career academies offers options they wouldn't have at their neighborhood schools. So-called "arterial" busing routes help them get there, offering pickup locations that aren't around the corner but close enough that parents can drive their kids to a stop.
Take that away or cut back, and you reduce opportunities for some 19,000 students enrolled in district choice programs who are eligible for a ride.
Do nothing and you continue to impose a systemic burden that experts say is real, while neighboring districts like Hillsborough County respond with later high school start times.
Kashif's five older siblings all went to high schools in St. Petersburg. But he spends nearly four hours a day on the road because none of those schools has a program like Tarpon Springs, and he wants to be a veterinarian.
"One day I hope I can open my own practice," he says.
Toni Booker wants her son to have that chance, even if it means he loses some sleep. In the north, she says, "there's so much more for us."
• • •
The honor roll eighth grader loved his weekends with Sheba.
His father's American bully dog made him feel calm, relaxed. If only he could be around four paws all the time as a veterinarian some day.
It was January 2017, and the window to apply for a high school magnet program was near. Kashif and his mother signed up for a tour of the Center for Wellness and Medical Professions magnet program at Boca Ciega High.
An administrator there mentioned the vet magnet program at Tarpon Springs High. Booker turned to her son.
"Kashif, that's where you need to go."
But how would he do it?
Booker, a 44-year-old single mom of seven with her youngest at Fairmount Park Elementary, works full-time delivering car parts. She studies toward a certification at St. Petersburg College and shares the family's Civic with her daughter, also a student at SPC.
Driving Kashif back and forth would be impossible. Tarpon is the northernmost high school in Pinellas, a 31-mile drive by car, one-way, from their south St. Petersburg home.
The school district said it could get him there, but it'd be an early rise.
And going to Tarpon High would come with sacrifices beyond a 4 a.m. alarm. Dependent on the bus, Kashif, a stocky fullback and linebacker, couldn't stay after school to play football for the Spongers.
Still, the school offered something else: a change in Kashif's crowd. Some kids in the neighborhood were stealing cars and breaking into homes. Many of them were headed to Gibbs High, the family's zoned school.
Kashif dreams of attending the University of Florida, home to the only veterinary school in the state. He needed to focus.
"I'm gonna break this generational curse," his mother thought. "I'm gonna step outside our comfort zone."
On a Thursday morning in August, she woke her son for the first day of school. He was excited, nervous, tired. Since then, he has been absent five times due to missing the bus, which cost him his good-grades exemption from taking the first semester final exam in all but two classes.
"I know it's a long hike for him," Booker says. "With the strength of the Lord, he'll get the strength to do it."
• • •
When it comes to later school start times in Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County is ground zero.
The larger school district across the bay announced in October that it would swap elementary and high school start times beginning in the 2018-19 school year. High school would begin at 8:30 a.m., and most elementary schools would start their day at 7:40 a.m.
Hillsborough's School Board voted 6-0 for the change, catching the attention of many Pinellas parents who wondered why their district couldn't do the same.
An online petition began circulating, racking up thousands of signatures. Its leader, Dunedin parent Melissa Gallivan, kept the School Board apprised of research showing that a later high school start time led to better academic performance, higher graduation rates and fewer fatal teen car crashes.
At the same time, district officials bought a new transportation software system and toyed with it to see if they could find a solution. But in their projections, the latest they could move the start time was 7:30 a.m.
Associate superintendent Clint Herbic explained why: The district decided that kids in elementary school are too young to wait for buses in the dark so it opted not to swap their start times with those for high schools. Also, Pinellas doesn't have enough bus drivers or enough time to get everyone where they need to be for an 8:30 a.m. start, given rush hour traffic. And, while eliminating routes like Kashif's could make more room in the schedule, that was not considered an option.
Just 30 percent of Pinellas County's 100,000 students ride a school bus, but two-thirds of its 441 bus routes serve students in choice programs.
One option would be to duplicate more magnet programs in the north and south parts of the county.
Pinellas Technical High School at Seminole, for example, could be a better option for Kashif when it launches in the fall as the district's only full-time technical high school. It has a veterinary assisting magnet as part of its curriculum, and going there instead of Tarpon High would halve his commute.
Another option: Kashif thought about applying to St. Petersburg Collegiate High School, a charter school serving grades 10-12. Students there earn a high school diploma and an associate's degree from St. Petersburg College upon graduation.
He could sleep in until school starts at 8 a.m. and be eligible to play football for Gibbs High. Plus, graduating from one of the top schools in the county could improve his chances of getting into UF.
After a full day at school and another nearly two-hour ride home, Kashif heads to tutoring to maintain a 3.0 grade point average and studies to retake the St. Petersburg Collegiate entrance exam in May. He missed the cutoff by just a few points.
But Booker has heard of scholarships that could come her son's way if he stays at Tarpon Springs High all four years. She may keep him there after all.
Could Kashif handle three more years?
"I gotta make sure I get a lot of rest," he says.
• • •
One of two bathrooms in the home built by Habitat for Humanity is conveniently next to Kashif's bedroom. It's his first stop in a daily routine that starts around 4:10 a.m.:
Lace up tomato-red Air Jordan 5s.
Grab a strawberry frosted Pop Tart, a gallon of fruit punch and an orange from the fridge.
Don't forget to make the bed.
Grab fresh football practice sweats from the laundry.
By 4:32 a.m., he sits on the couch in the glow of his smartphone, waiting for his mother. She'll take him a few blocks away to the bus stop on 11th Avenue S, between Jamerson Elementary and Pinellas Technical College St. Petersburg. Some days, when mom needs a rest, his 23-year-old sister, Khadejah, will drive and wait with him.
The bus pulls up with a low rumble, lights on, top 40 hits blaring. Kashif, the first soul aboard, picks a seat in the third row and slouches against the window. He pulls up his hoodie, plugs in headphones and tunes out. He watches the passing streetlights until the road rattles him to sleep.
"At the beginning of the school year I was tired a lot and I did go to sleep in a couple of my classes," he says. "But as the year went on my body got used to it."
In her 34 years as a bus driver, Susie Givens has criss-crossed the county. She's been driving the longest — and earliest — route in the district for about seven years.
She reports for duty at 4:16 a.m. at the 49th Street bus compound. After she drops off at Tarpon Springs, she picks up students on the way back south for Bay Point Middle.
She's seen scores of kids get on board for the long haul. Dedicated students make for quiet bus riders.
"I'm like, how do they do it?" Givens says.
She hears no complaints. Would a 20-minute change matter?
"I don't know how that's going to work out for this particular run," she says. "By beginning so early we avoid a lot of the traffic."
Soon, the School Board will decide one way or the other. A discussion on start times is set for the board's March 20 workshop, and a vote could come as soon as April 10.
• • •
Kashif's teachers had no idea he was the earliest bus rider in Tampa Bay.
"He never complains, ever," said earth and space science teacher Hannah Gatley, who has him as a student every day in first period, before dawn.
"He never mentioned it, never used any excuse," said geometry teacher Adrienne Vasquez.
"There was a time where he was zonked in period three but his work was always turned in," said Spanish teacher Maria Segovia.
After a full school day with seven classes, Kashif hops back on board the 881 bus around 1:45 p.m. The ride back is speedier with fewer drop-offs since some students stay behind for after-school activities.
He downloads the movie Boo 2! A Madea Halloween on his phone to watch on the ride back. He sneaks in a quick nap before the rest of his day begins.
After tutoring, he heads to a 6 p.m. football practice at the Wildwood Football Complex. He's earned a starting spot on the No Limit Lions, a team that won't have him next year. He'll be too old.
Despite having been mostly awake since 4 a.m., he hustles through sprinting and blocking drills.
Coach Kelvin Smarwt says he knows about Kashif's schedule. "But you couldn't tell it because he works hard," he says. "That's Kashif. He's adamant about what he wants to do."
He returns home around 8:30 p.m. and plops on the couch across from his mom, scrolling on his phone. The conversation turns to a familiar topic in any household with a teenager: the push for more freedom.
Kashif's regimented schedule doesn't leave much time for leisure. But most of all, he misses playing football for a school team.
His mom stays firm in her insistence that he continue at Tarpon Springs High — and in her opinion on what Pinellas County should do about high school start times.
"Just leave it like it is," Toni Booker says. "What difference is it gonna make?"
Her son pipes up with an answer. Even though his body has gotten used to the early bus ride, and even though he feels his sacrifice is worth it, a later bus ride, and a little more sleep, would make a difference, he says.
"A lot of difference."
Contact Colleen Wright at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.