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Posted at 04:47 PM ET, 06/12/2012

Fairfax takes small step in debate over high-school start times

For the eighth time in 24 years, the Fairfax County School Board is studying whether high schools should open later in the morning to accommodate teens’ natural sleep cycles.

At a work session Monday, board members appeared to be headed toward hiring a consultant to identify how to push back high-school start times without breaking the budget and with minimal disruption to families’ lives.

Board Chairwoman Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) tapped four of her colleagues to serve on an ad-hoc committee that will craft a description of the work that the board will expect of a consultant.

The four are Sandy Evans (Mason), a longtime advocate for later start times; Ted Velkoff (At Large), who has been skeptical about whether bell-schedule changes are practical; Patty Reed (Providence), who has supported later start times, and who is also a fiscal conservative known for her concern with reining in spending; and Ryan McElveen (At Large).

McElveen has also supported later start times but said Monday that perhaps it would make more sense to change schools’ schedules a few at a time, rather than trying to overhaul the whole system at once.

That did not sit well with Chief Operating Officer Dean Tistadt, who oversees the sprawling school system’s facilities and transportation — including one of the biggest (if not the biggest) fleet of school buses in the nation.

Tweaking that complicated system little by little, Tistadt said, “would cost a lot to buy the counselors we would need for the transportation staff who would be on suicide watch.”

Phyllis Payne, who has been pushing for later start times since 2004, said in an e-mail that Monday’s school board discussion was “a small step in a painfully slow process.”

But, she said, “I like the idea of a change management consultant and agree with staff’s recommendation that this might be the best way for the school board to move forward in an objective and timely manner.”

School start times are a charged issue in Fairfax. This spring, the transportation department triggered an uproar in some communities when it announced shifts in schedules at dozens of schools — some as little as five or ten minutes, others as much as 30 or 40 minutes.

Those changes allowed the school system to use its buses more efficiently and save $500,000, Tistadt said. But some parents and School Board members complained that the changes, made without community input, will have far-reaching impacts on families’ routines.

One of the most vocal communities has been at Laurel Ridge Elementary, which is slated to go from an 8:50 a.m. start time this year to 9:10 start time next year.

Hundreds of people signed a petition opposing the change, saying it “would drastically change the quality of life for many families.” And more than 100 parents and teachers showed up at Laurel Ridge on Monday night to voice their concerns at a town hall meeting with Tistadt and School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock).

Laurel Ridge counselor Martha DeVault said that pushing elementary school later into the afternoon doesn’t work because little kids are at their best earlier in the day.

“At some point, their brains and bodies have enough learning and it’s time to go home,” DeVault said.

Tistadt said he and his staff would look for creative, no-cost ways to avoid the 20-minute change at Laurel Ridge. But he made no promises.

“I don’t change your bus schedule to intentionally upset you,” he said. “If I can figure out some solution here to mitigate this, I will.”

By  |  04:47 PM ET, 06/12/2012

Tags:  fairfax county public schools

 
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