Fairfax Should Keep Looking for Sensible Start Times

Monday, March 9, 2009

IN FAIRFAX County's debate about start times for high school students, it is clear that most people think the current bell rings way too early and more sleep would benefit teenagers. But it's also clear that most people hate the schedule developed by transportation officials that would make for later high school starts. School officials should keep looking for a better solution to this vexing but critical issue.

The Board of Education is set to meet today to discuss moving the start time of most high schools from the current 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Most middle school students would also get later start times, while elementary school schedules would be adjusted as well. At a series of community meetings, the widespread sentiment was that the changes were far too disruptive to accepted routines of work, day care and after-school activities. Even high school students who would benefit from the plan objected. The parent-led group that has championed the five-year effort recognized flaws in the plan and is not pushing for its adoption.

Given those circumstances, any hope of making a change for the 2009-10 school year is likely to be out of the question. But members of SLEEP -- Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal -- are right to not want school officials to just walk away from the issue but to build on what they have learned. This won't be easy, given the size of the 169,000-student system, Northern Virginia's congested traffic, the need for a no-cost solution and the exhaustive work that has already gone into the effort. But SLEEP is an able collaborator, as witnessed by how far the county has come on this issue. Consider, for instance, that school officials once said that any schedule change was out of the question because of costs estimated as high as $40 million. Prodded by SLEEP, they found inefficiencies in bus routes that were used to produce the no-cost proposal. That there is public support for the concept of later start times is the result of the group's work.

Without question, though, the most compelling argument for school board members to move forward lies in the science that establishes the natural tendency of teenagers to stay up late at night and in the research that shows the real and significant benefits of later start times to learning and health. A good night's sleep remains an important goal.

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