Montgomery schools chief reverses course on proposal to change high school start times

Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr withdrew his support Tuesday from a long-discussed proposal to reset the opening bells of Montgomery County high schools nearly an hour later and allow bleary-eyed teenagers more time to sleep.

Starr cited projected costs of more than $21 million a year and “mixed feedback” from the community as he issued a report and a recommendation that the Montgomery Board of Education hold off on the changes he proposed in October.

Starr had called for shifting the start time to 8:15 a.m. at the school system’s 25 high schools to benefit student health and well-being. High school classes now begin at 7:25 a.m., with many students boarding buses in the 6 o’clock hour.

“I wish we had been able to find a way to make it cost-effective and palatable to most people, but that is not what we have right here,” Starr said Tuesday. He called the cost prohibitive at a time when the budget is under pressure and there are competing priorities.

His latest recommendation was assailed by parents who have campaigned for a later start time for more than 18 months. The parents said they were stunned by the move, which came a week before a much-anticipated school board discussion.

Read Starr's report

Starr's report

Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr recommends not acting on his proposal to start high schools later in order to give teenagers more sleep. Read it.

“I am shocked that he would take a serious health and safety issue and continue to put it off,” said parent Mandi Mader, who launched a petition drive for a later start time that has garnered more than 11,700 signatures. She cited research linking lack of sleep to an increased risk of depression, obesity and car crashes.

She argued that there are ways to reduce the cost and remarked that changing start times is “just not his priority.”

Starr presented his proposal in October on the heels of a 56-page report from a school system work group that examined research on teen sleep and provided options for making schedule changes.

Starr put forward his own blend of ideas: Along with the later high school opening, middle school students would start 10 minutes earlier, at 7:45 a.m., and the elementary school day would be extended by 30 minutes in the afternoon. He asked for a more detailed analysis of costs and an expansive effort to collect public comment.

The idea of a longer elementary school day sparked dissent from parents who said that young children are tired by late afternoon and need ample time to play, exercise, participate in activities and do homework.

“This plan simply cannot move forward without such a change,” Starr wrote of the extended elementary school day in a memo to the board.

In school system surveys, parents were the group most supportive of delaying the high school start time, with 78 percent in favor. On the other hand, high school students and teachers were divided almost equally.

Sixty-five percent of middle school students and 70 percent of their teachers favored Starr’s proposals. At the elementary school level, 30 percent of staff and 35 percent of pupils expressed support.

Patricia O’Neill, the school board vice president, said that she still hopes to find a way to change the high school start time and that she wants to know more about why the cost of shifting bell times appears to be lower in Fairfax County.

O’Neill (District 3) said she was surprised that more high school students did not support the concept. “I thought we had a real opportunity to give our high school students some relief,” she said.

Parent advocates said Starr erred in melding two unrelated proposals: starting the high school day later and lengthening the elementary school day.

“He’s just confused the issue by putting these things together,” said Michael Rubinstein of the Montgomery chapter of the organization Start School Later. “They really have to be judged separately.”

The report issued Tuesday provides cost estimates for the proposed schedule changes, including $12.9 million more a year for transportation and $775,000 more for utilities. The longer school day for young children would require $8 million to $47 million more a year for staffing, the report says.

Starr said in a memo to the board that adding a half-hour to the elementary school day was necessary “to ensure that school buses have enough time to make their runs.” Montgomery has a tiered system of bus routes so the same buses can be used to transport students with different start times.

He said the divide among high school students and staff “was particularly relevant” because they would be the “direct beneficiaries” of the later start time.

Starr said he is open to revisiting the issue.

“I do support the concept, but the proposal we put forward, that I had asked folks to pursue, is not going to work,” Starr said.

In his recommendation to schools officials, Starr noted that the cost estimates came at a time when Montgomery was able to add just $12.5 million to its budget for initiatives to address the achievement gap and to prepare for new curriculum and student assessments.

Starr also noted that Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) recently signed legislation for a state study of later high school start times. “That may have some implications for us going forward,” Starr said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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