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Monday, June 9, 2014

Local residents weigh options for later high school start times

People hash out the pros and cons of various school schedules at a meeting at Poe Middle School in Annandale.
The majority of parents, teachers, community residents, and students who came to a meeting at Poe Middle School June 7 on later high school start times seemed to favor an option calling for high school to start at  9:15 a.m. with elementary schools starting at 7:40 a.m.  

That meeting is one of several hosted by Fairfax County Public Schools to seek community input on four options for later start times for high schools. The school board has already decided to go ahead with later start times in fall 2015 because board members agree that when teens get more sleep, they are healthier and do better academically.

High schools currently start at 7:20 a.m., which means some students wake up as early as 5:45 a.m. to catch a bus.  

In March 2013, the board contracted with experts in sleep medicine at the Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC) to develop various scenarios for implementing later start times. The school board then selected four options to present to the community.  

The 70 or so people at the Poe meeting were split into groups to discuss the pros and cons of each option. Here’s a recap of their comments:

Most of the participants seemed to favor option #4, which would have this schedule: 9:15 a.m.-4:05 p.m. for high school, 8:20 or 8:30 a.m.-3:10 or 3:20 p.m. for middle school, and elementary schools starting between 7:40 and 9:15 a.m. and ending between 2:30 and 3:50 p.m.

Several people said they preferred option #4 because it is the least costly, requiring just 25 new buses at a cost of $2.8 million.

Others said they like that schedule because it has the latest start time for high school students, allowing them the most morning sleep. One student from a Boy Scout group at the meeting preferred a later start time because “teachers are groggy and slow in the morning.”

The main problems with option #4 have to do with the late ending of middle and high school interfering with after-school activities. One parent suggested a solution would be starting after-school sports and other activities immediately at the end of the school day, not an hour later, and having shorter practices.

Option #1, which calls for high schools to start at 8:30 a.m., also got a lot of support at the Poe meeting, but several people were turned off by its high cost. Option #1 is the most expensive at $7.6 million, requiring 60 new buses.  

The members of one group preferred option #1 but couldn’t justify the high cost when FCPS can’t afford to pay teacher raises. As an alternative, they proposed option #4 but shifting the start times for elementary students later. That group didn’t like options #2 and #3 because they call for middle school to start too early.

Under option #2, high school would start at 8 or 8:10 a.m. and end at 3 or 3:10 p.m., middle school would be 7:20 a.m.-2:10 p.m., and elementary schools would start at 7:45-9:10 a.m. and end at 2:20-3:45 p.m. That schedules requires 38 new buses at a cost of $4.6 million.

Option #3 (46 buses, $5.6 million) calls for high school to start at 8-8:10 a.m. and end at 2:40-2:50 p.m. Middle school would be 7:20 a.m.-2 p.m. Elementary school would be on the current schedule: 8-9:20 a.m. to 2:40-4 p.m.

The people in another group preferred option #3 because they liked the idea of high school students getting home early enough to help care for their younger siblings. They suggested keeping that model but shifting everything 20 minutes later.

That group liked the additional sleep time for high school students in option #4 but worried there would be less time in the afternoon for sports and academic help. A teacher said she wouldn’t be able to keep her second job if school didn’t end until 4.

Another group said the 8 a.m. start time for high school in option #3 isn’t late enough, and the 7:50 a.m. start time for elementary school in option #1 is too early. A mix of options might work better, one participant said.

At the start of the meeting, Daniel Lewin of CNMC, spoke about why later start times for adolescents is the right thing to do.

“Sleep health is critical,” Lewin said. An adequate amount of sleep is “essential for health, mental health, and biological development. It’s as important as nutrition and exercise.”

The lack of sleep affects brain functions that deal with time management, planning and organization, problem solving, decision making, motivation, and impulse control, he said. Sleep loss also interferes with emotional functions and is associated with depression and suicidal thoughts among teens. And drowsy teens are more likely to have accidents behind the wheel.

Adolescents need eight and a-half or nine hours of sleep a night. CNMC found that only 6 percent of Fairfax County 10th-graders and 3 percent of 12th graders get that much sleep.

The lack of sleep cannot be made up later, say on weekends, because teens’ “circadian biological rhythms won’t catch up,” Lewin said. “The result is a permanent state of jet lag.”

Teens cannot make themselves go to bed earlier, because their circadian rhythms make it difficult to fall asleep before 10 or 11 p.m., Lewin said. Also, the deeper REM sleep that occurs in the morning is especially critical.

In schools with later start times, studies found fewer students falling asleep in class, significantly higher test scores and grades, and fewer automobile accidents.

FCPS has already held five community meetings on school start times and will hold three more this week, including one June10, 7 p.m., at West Springfield High School. The public can also submit comments on later start times online. The school board is expected to vote on a recommendation for changing school start times in October.

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