Later Fairfax Bell Would Sink Swimmers, Some Say

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 2009

A proposal to push back Fairfax County high school start times and give teenagers more opportunity to sleep is sounding alarms for hundreds of parents, students and school staff members, who worry that the extra rest isn't worth the scheduling headaches it would cause.

School officials are still studying the implications of the plan, which would reroute buses and change start times for all 169,000 Fairfax students. But the potential for sweeping change already is causing anxiety for many parents who juggle complicated work schedules and day-care arrangements and for students who are loaded up with after-school jobs and activities.

Many Fairfax teachers and support staff also are worried that the schedule change could put them in rush-hour traffic or disrupt their after-school routines.

"Are the benefits of better sleep worth it? Or does it impose too much of a cost?" asked Lorraine S. Monaco, a mother from the Hayfield Farm community. She is trying to slow momentum for what is known as the "sleep initiative" with a Web site called WAKE Fairfax, for Worried About Keeping Extra-curriculars.

Another group, Save Our Sport, has formed to represent swim- and dive-team families who oppose the plan because they fear it would jeopardize their ability to secure county-operated pools for practices and meets.

Advocates of the later high school start are asking the community to be flexible and consider the potential benefits that research has identified, including healthier, less-stressed and higher-performing teenagers. They caution that many people are jumping to conclusions and drawing worst-case scenarios before details are known about how after-school activities would be redesigned.

"We recognize that it's a big collaborative project, but it will pay big dividends," said Phyllis Payne, co-founder of the parent-led group SLEEP, for Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal. The group has worked for five years to change the schedule. More than 8,000 people have signed a petition to support the cause.

Several earlier proposals suggested that a schedule change would carry a multimillion-dollar price tag. But this winter, the school system offered a more efficient, no-cost plan.

Most high schools in Fairfax start at 7:20 a.m.; most middle schools start between 7:20 and 8:05 a.m.; and most elementary schools start between 8 and 9:15 a.m.

Under the proposal, the start time for most high schools would move to 8:30 a.m. Elementary schools would start between 7:50 and 9:25 a.m., and most middle schools would start at 9:40 a.m.

Several U.S. school systems have pushed back high school start times in recent years, including Arlington County, which opted in 2000 to start at 8:15 a.m. instead of 7:30. Anne Arundel County and Montgomery County schools considered the issue but decided a change would be too costly or disruptive.

William Curran, director of athletics and activities for Fairfax schools, is looking at how logistics would have to be reworked for dozens of sports teams and more than 300 recognized after-school clubs. He said the proposal represents "a wholesale change in the way we do business."

Among his concerns are tweaking schedules or practice locations so that field hockey teams are not playing in the dark, for example, and making sure that enough buses are available to get students to practices or games.

A few sports, including swimming, rely on facilities operated by the county, and schedule changes must be balanced with heavy community use. The Fairfax County Park Authority has issued a statement that it will work with the School Board "to achieve the best possible outcomes" if schedule changes are approved.

But Lisa A. Leake, head of the Save Our Sport group and a Fairfax teacher, said the group would not support the proposal without a guarantee of pool time.

Fairfax school officials have scheduled seven town hall meetings on the proposal at schools the week of Feb. 22. They are also designing electronic surveys for parents, students, staff members and others.

Fairfax schools Chief Operating Officer Dean Tistadt has asked the School Board to make a decision by March so he can have enough time to prepare for the potential shift. The board could decide to approve or reject the plan then, or it could vote to delay action or study the matter further.

In any case, the board "won't make a decision until it has an opportunity to hear from the public" and to see "what the real trade-offs are," said School Board member Brad Center (Lee).

Staff writer Paul Tenorio contributed to this report.

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