Sleepy teens: Montgomery proposal to start high school day later draws mixed reaction

Lisa Rigazio, mother of a first-grader, said Montgomery County’s proposal to shift high school start times from 7:25 to 8:15 a.m. might help teenagers get more sleep, but she asked: At what cost?

“I don’t want it to work at the expense of the little kids,” she said at a community meeting this week.

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Rigazio, of Silver Spring, pointed out that the plan calls for the county’s elementary school day to run 30 minutes longer in the afternoon. That means Rigazio’s daughter would not climb off her school bus from Flora M. Singer Elementary School until 4:30 p.m., she said.

“When are they going to have time to go out and play?” she asked, urging school officials to examine the proposal’s effect on young students with the same rigor used to analyze high-schoolers’ needs.

Monday’s community gathering provided a glimpse of wide-ranging public opinion as Montgomery school officials consider a proposal to delay the start of the high school day by nearly an hour. Superintendent Joshua P. Starr offered the proposal Oct. 1 after the district studied the issue.

Starr’s plan aims to address the health and well-being of teenagers, but schedule changes also would affect other students. In addition to the longer elementary school day, middle-schoolers would start 10 minutes earlier, at 7:45 a.m.

At the meeting, in Burtonsville, about 150 parents, students and educators weighed in on the benefits and “challenges” of Starr’s proposal.

A teacher who works with English-language learners spoke about how her students’ after-school jobs would be affected. “They have to work,” she said.

A father of high-schoolers said that, in his community, the changes might have a positive effect on commuting, allowing residents to head to their jobs before roads are clogged near the high school.

Someone said teacher morale would suffer.

Others talked about possible negative effects on child-care arrangements, family time and students’ extracurricular activities.

The greatest benefit, many agreed, was the most obvious one: Teens might get more sleep. Some said this would lead to less tardiness and more alertness in class. Others talked about how more sleep might mean fewer drowsy-driving crashes.

“Students will come to school with a better attitude,” said one teenager in the audience.

“You promise?” the moderator asked her, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Researchers say that teens need 81 / 2 to 91 / 2 hours of sleep a night and that, because of a change in their biological clocks, they don’t get tired before 11 p.m. Supporters of the schedule change say it’s nearly impossible for teenagers to get enough sleep with start times at 7:25 a.m., and they point to research showing sleep deprivation is linked to such problems as obesity, depression and car crashes.

Last fall, more than 10,000 names were collected on an online petition calling for later high school start times. Rigazio said she signed the petition but wants young students to get full consideration, too. She said the 30-minute add-on to the school day did not seem “a well-thought idea.”

Montgomery officials say that the district’s elementary schools have the state’s second-shortest school day and that the extra time would mean students at all grade levels would have days of equal length: 6 hours 45 minutes.

Starr’s proposal allows for a staggering of start and end times across the system, which limits transportation costs.

Monday’s forum will be followed by similar events scheduled for Dec. 16, Jan. 6 and Feb. 10, officials said. Plans also are in the works for focus groups, surveys and neighbor-to-neighbor sessions. The county is also soliciting comment via e-mail, at belltimes@mcpsmd.org.

Two middle-schoolers said after Monday’s forum that they were impressed by the thoughtfulness of what they heard. They were still deciding where they stand.

Meanwhile, “I think if the high-schoolers are so tired,” a sixth-grader said, “their parents should not let them drive.”

 
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