Fairfax schools chief proposes later high school start times to improve teen health

Schools Superintendent Karen Garza plans to push for later start times at Fairfax County high schools next year, aiming to begin their day no earlier than 8 a.m. in an effort to give teenagers more time to sleep.

Garza is scheduled to present a proposal at Monday’s School Board meeting, and community meetings to discuss the idea will follow, officials said. The board plans to vote on Garza’s proposal in late October, with the possibility of changing when the opening bells ring by next school year.

The proposal would delay high school start times by at least 40 minutes, but middle schools across the county would open at 7:30 a.m., costing thousands of students up to a half-hour of sleep. Middle schools would become the county system’s earliest-opening schools. Elementary schools would not see significant changes.

The proposal, if successful, would bring to fruition a movement that got underway in the early 1990s.

The School Board voted against delaying high school start times in 2009, with members citing cost as the reason for not approving the change. But Garza’s proposal responds to a resolution — approved by the current board in 2012 — that calls for high school to open no earlier than 8 a.m.

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The transition to the new start times would cost the school system nearly $5 million, mostly to purchase 27 buses. Significant adjustments to transportation schedules would be needed because buses often run multiple routes serving schools at different grade levels.

Another plan the board is considering would split start times at the county’s three seventh- through 12th-grade “secondary schools,” with seventh- and eighth-graders starting before 8 a.m. That option, which would cost about $1.5 million, would result in fewer teens getting the benefit of extra sleep.

Experts at Children’s National Medical Center helped school administrators design the new proposal, which they hope will benefit teens’ mental health and academic achievement.

Phyllis Payne, who co-founded Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP), a local advocacy group, said she supports Garza’s plan. “I think this is a huge improvement over what we have now,” Payne said. “What I think is clear overall is that there is support for change.”

Payne said the proposal is not ideal for middle-schoolers, who experts say also benefit from additional sleep, because they might have to start the school day earlier. “I would prefer middle schools closer to 8 a.m.,” Payne said.

Payne said she supports the changes because “this option actually gives students in Fairfax start times after 8 a.m. for at least 10 or 11 of their 13 years in our school system, and that’s much better than what we have now.”

According to SLEEP, Fairfax would become the 73rd school district, of 95 in the state, to set high school start times no earlier than 8 a.m.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.

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