Dear Extra Credit:

Now that you've explained the Virginia school calendar, perhaps you can tell us why Fairfax County middle school and high school students must get up at 5:30 a.m. to catch their 6:30 a.m. buses. Since this goes against all of the studies that show teens need more sleep and function better later in the morning, I hope there is a better explanation than the ones I've heard, such as to leave time for after-school sports.

Steve Dennett

McLean

Parent of a seventh-grader

at Longfellow Middle School

The Fairfax County School Board, always up-to-date on the latest research, knows that teens do better if they don't have to drag themselves to school until 9 a.m. But the board has been unable to find a way to make this happen that would not be enormously expensive or create problems for younger children.

School system spokesman Paul Regnier said the board has struggled with this at least twice in the last 10 years, bumping hard each time against the transportation issue. Each school bus makes several runs in the morning and afternoon, picking up and delivering high school and middle school students first and then elementary school students.

"This makes our transportation system very efficient and cost-effective, with the minimum number of buses on the road at any one time," Regnier said.

You would have to do one of three things to get the teenagers to school later:

1. Buy enough buses and find enough additional drivers to take the older kids to school at the same time as the younger kids.

2. Flip the schedule so the younger kids go first.

3. Make all schools start later, with the high school bell maybe set for 8:30 a.m. and the elementary school bell for 10 a.m.

But option 1 would be expensive, option 2 would have little kids waiting for buses or walking to school in the dark, and option 3 would put more buses on the road during the afternoon rush hour and have the youngest children arriving home pretty late.

If you have a better idea, the board is eager to hear from you. Other districts in the area have tried and failed to fix this problem, and teenagers -- whom the researchers say are not physiologically capable of going to bed early -- are still missing out on a lot of sleep.

Teacher Pay Fares Better

Dear Extra Credit:

We're told by the Virginia Board of Education that we have the toughest requirements for teacher certification -- "highly qualified" as described under the No Child Left Behind law. However, teacher compensation mandated by the commonwealth ranks near the bottom. How does one reconcile this difference? Aren't you supposed to pay for quality?

Bill Levey

Alexandria

Director, Fairfax District PTA

and Cameron Elementary

School parent

Virginia does set a relatively high standard for academic achievement among its new teachers. They must score at least 178 in writing, 178 in reading and have a composite score of 531 on the Praxis I test, among the tougher requirements of the 28 states that use Praxis. In Maryland you could get certified with a 173 in writing, a 177 in reading and a 527 composite.

But that has not impressed the National Council on Teacher Quality, which gave Virginia, as well as California, Michigan and South Carolina, an F on its teacher quality standards. It said there was "little rigor" in Virginia's requirements for teachers to know their subject matter. "Teachers need to take only two classes to prove subject matter knowledge," it said. The council gave Maryland a C.

It is also wrong to say that teacher compensation in the commonwealth ranks near the bottom. The National Education Association's list of average salaries for public school teachers in 2002-03 ranks Virginia No. 21 in the country, with an annual average of $43,152.

This is below the national average of $45,891 but above the averages in states that often brag on their school systems -- such as Wisconsin ($42,775) and Colorado ($42,679). The average in Maryland is $49,677 and in the District, $50,763.

Please send your questions along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 4020 University Dr., Suite 220, Fairfax, Va. 22030. Or send e-mail to extracredit@washpost.com.