Montgomery County schools chief pushes for later high school start times

Montgomery County took a major step Tuesday toward giving bleary-eyed teenagers more sleep, with a largely unexpected proposal by its schools chief to reset the opening bells of high school nearly an hour later, to 8:15 a.m.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr offered his plan as the district released a 56-page report that examines research on teen sleep, describes results of student surveys and details possibilities for changing school start times.

(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post) - Joshua Starr, schools superintendent for Montgomery County, wants to push back high school start times by 50 minutes.

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“I think this makes sense,” Starr said, speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon outside the Rockville Memorial Library. “I think if we do it, if we can afford it, if it makes sense, then why not?”

Starr’s proposal would push back high school start times — now 7:25 a.m. — by 50 minutes while bringing in other changes. Middle-schoolers would start at 7:45 a.m., 10 minutes earlier than they do now, and children in elementary school would have a longer school day, with afternoon dismissals that would be 30 minutes later.

The proposal would cost about $12 million a year and is a starting point for a public discussion expected to include community meetings, surveys, focus groups and other efforts. A final recommendation to the school board and full cost analysis are expected by the spring.

Changes would require the school board’s approval, and new schedules would take effect at earliest in the 2015-16 school year.

The report is to be presented to the school board at its Oct. 8 meeting.

Starr said Tuesday that there is not convincing evidence that changing school hours would boost academic achievement, but, he said, “there’s a clear link between student health and well-being and sleep. If kids could start the day later, we expect they will get more sleep. It’s related to safer roads, it’s related to kids being more alert.”

In a memo to the school board, Starr said that getting enough sleep “helps increase important brain functions vital to the learning process” and contributes to lower rates of car crashes and obesity, and a decreased incidence of depression.

Sleep deprivation in adolescents is a “public health issue,” he wrote.

Starr’s proposal echoed concerns raised by county parents and students during the past year. An online petition calling for later high school start times garnered more than 10,000 signatures. Starr created a sleep work group to evaluate the issue in December.

That group looked at research, practices in other school systems and options for change. Starr’s proposal is a variation of one of the report’s four suggestions.

His strong backing for later high school start times took some by surprise, as it was an apparent shift from last fall, when he questioned potential hurdles and whether such an effort would take the district off task.

“I’m so happy. This is going to help so many kids,” said Mandi Mader, a Garrett Park parent, who launched Montgomery’s petition drive and was a member of the study group that issued the new report.

“Fifty minutes will do a lot of good. It really will.”

Montgomery’s actions Tuesday come as other school systems in the region are pursuing similar ideas. In Fairfax County, a consultant is developing options for later start times that the school board will consider early next year, and this year the county began allowing some high school seniors to drop early morning classes so they can sleep in.

Fairfax School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason), who supports later start times, praised Starr’s move. “I do think the momentum is building,” Evans said.

Researchers have found that teenagers need 81 / 2 to 91 / 2 hours of sleep a night. With high school classes in Montgomery beginning at 7:25 a.m. and buses picking up students in the 6 a.m. hour, many teens would need to be in bed at 9 p.m. to get a full night’s rest.

Montgomery’s new report cited research showing that teens get more sleep when high schools start later and that they do not stay up later the night before classes.

It also included surveys that showed 70 percent of parents and 63 percent of students thought the 7:25 a.m. opening of Montgomery’s high schools was “too early.”

More than half of students surveyed reported sleeping six hours or less a night. When asked to describe how often they dozed off or lost focus in early classes, more than one-third said two to four times a week; 30 percent said every day.

“The student who sleeps in class misses an opportunity to learn,” the report said. “The student who drives while sleepy is a danger to him- or herself and others.”

The proposed changes to benefit teenagers are paired with changes to expand learning for elementary school students, adding the equivalent of nearly 14 school days to the academic year for the system’s youngest students.

Under the proposal, elementary school days would last as long as middle school and high school days: six hours, 45 minutes.

Montgomery’s elementary students now have the second-shortest school day in Maryland, officials said. The change would bring it in line with other systems.

Montgomery has studied “bell times” before, issuing reports in the late 1990s. Critics have said that later high school bells would mean higher transportation costs and conflicts with child-care arrangements, after-school jobs, extra-curricular activities and high school athletics.

Supporters of a later high school day have argued that studies show teenagers are biologically wired for later bedtimes and wake-ups and that sleep-
deprived students are at risk for an array of health, safety and academic problems.

School officials say they will work with parents, students, employees and unions to study potential effects of Starr’s proposed changes.

 
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