FAIRFAX SCHOOL officials have characterized as a no-brainer their decision to start the high school day a bit later each morning. “So clear and compelling” are the health benefits of adequate sleep for adolescents, said school board chairman Tammy Derenak-Kaufax, “we felt that we had to make a change.”
But the move did not come easily. In fact, it follows more than a decade of study and sometimes heated debate; school officials deserve kudos for persevering to come up with a workable solution. Their action should serve as a model for other area school districts.
Under a plan that won near-unanimous school board approval last week, start times for the county’s 22 high schools and three secondary schools (combined middle and high schools) will be pushed back next fall to between 8 a.m. and 8:10 a.m. The current start time is 7:20 a.m.; that means some teens have to get up as early as 5 a.m. to be ready for pre-dawn bus pickups. Research has established that teenagers have sleep patterns that make it hard for them to go to sleep early and wake up early and that the resulting sleep deficit can cause health problems and diminished learning. So strong is the science that the American Academy of Pediatrics has gone on record as favoring later start times.
Fairfax devised its plan with the help of sleep experts from the Children’s National Medical Center. It will require a shift to an earlier start time of 7:30 a.m. for middle schools and the first-year expenditure of $4.9 million, mainly to buy new buses. While the earlier start for middle school students is not ideal, the plan strikes the right balance between competing needs. The additional cost is a worthwhile investment in student health, after-school activities can still be accommodated and most students will have start times at or after 8 a.m. for at least 10 of their 13 school years.
Fairfax’s shift is noteworthy because the district is so large; it had been argued that the cost as well as disruption to people’s routines would be too great. Here is where leadership really counted: The board went on record in 2012 to make later start times a goal, and Superintendent Karen Garza, who took office in 2013, was determined to find a solution and not make excuses. That should be a lesson for school districts — notably Montgomery County — that agree about the benefits to students of later start times but have yet to find a way to make it happen.