October 7, 2013

THE PROPOSAL by Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr to begin high school classes later in the morning should come as no surprise. The recommendation is in line with years of research that shows the benefits of teenagers getting more sleep. The big question is whether Mr. Starr can succeed in overcoming the obstacles that doomed previous efforts to fashion more sensible school schedules.

A task force appointed last year by Mr. Starr to study high school bell times produced a thoughtful report on the health and public safety drawbacks of the current 7:25 a.m. start time, which requires Montgomery’s high school students to get up as early as 6. Accordingly, Mr. Starr unveiled a proposal that would delay the start of high school by 50 minutes, to 8:15 a.m. “Adolescents are simply not getting enough sleep. . . . If we are truly committed to the well-being of our students, we must consider the feasibility of adjusting our start times to support their health and success,” he said in a statement.

The beauty of Mr. Starr’s proposal, set to be discussed Tuesday at a school board work session, is that it achieves this later start time with minimal disruptions — and even some advantages — to other grades. Middle school students would start at 7:45 a.m, only 10 minutes earlier than they do now, and elementary school start times would remain unchanged, with the school day extended by 30 minutes. Not only would sleep-deprived teenagers have schedules more in keeping with their natural biorhythms but Montgomery elementary students, with currently the second-shortest school day in the state, would have an instructional program enhanced by extra time.

Officials estimate the change would add $12 million in transportation costs each year, and the additional half-hour for elementary students would require some accommodation with the teachers union. Neither hurdle should be insurmountable for a system with a $2.2 billion budget. A far more formidable challenge may be changing long-held habits or getting over faulty notions that teenagers can get the sleep they need simply by going to bed earlier. Such issues scuttled the system’s previous effort to adjust the schedule, so it’s prudent that Mr. Starr has called for implementation of his proposal in the 2015-16 school year, which would give the system time to make the necessary adjustments.

School systems across the country have shown that later high school start times are doable and beneficial. Some, including Fairfax County, are studying a change and experimenting with programs that let eligible students skip first period. We hope the Montgomery school board gets behind Mr. Starr in making late start times a reality and not just something to talk about.