STUDENT HEALTH and success were uppermost in the mind of Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr last fall when he recommended a change in school bell times that would allow for a later start for high school classes. “Adolescents are simply not getting enough sleep,” he said, citing research showing the negative effects of teenagers getting up before dawn to go to school. Unfortunately, student well-being no longer seems to be Mr. Starr’s priority; now he says he can’t support the move. That is a disconcerting setback for bringing needed sense to school schedules.
Mr. Starr announced last week that he was withdrawing his backing for a proposal that would change the start of classes at the system’s 25 high schools from the current 7:25 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. Under the proposal, middle school students would start 10 minutes earlier than they currently do and elementary students would start at the same time but remain in school longer. “Prohibitive costs” estimated at more than $21 million a year and “mixed feedback” from the community were the reasons Mr. Starr gave for his change of heart.
“It was not a done deal,” Mr. Starr said as he explained to us that he did exactly what he had promised in undertaking a study, developing options and studying their feasibility. Fair enough, but even as Mr. Starr contended that he had hoped to be able to implement later start times, one senses, as parent activist Mandi Mader said, it is “just not his priority.” Indeed, Mr. Starr admitted as much when he talked about other, more pressing, needs faced by the system and how it would have been irresponsible for him to include this proposal in his budget.
We think Mr. Starr is wrong in not placing more importance on an issue that has implications for student health, achievement and safety. We know there isn’t unanimity in the community on the issue — any time the status quo is threatened, there is pushback — but Mr. Starr should be leading for change, not just reading the polls. If the money can’t be found, go back to the drawing board: Fairfax County, a district comparable to Montgomery, hired a consultant who has developed options for later high school starts at far less the cost than those proposed for Montgomery.
The Montgomery Board of Education is set to discuss this issue on Tuesday. It needs to tell Mr. Starr the same thing that Montgomery students are told every day in school: Don’t give up so easily. The issue is too important to student well-being.