ROCKVILLE – Parents overwhelmingly supported delaying high school start times at a Board of Education public hearing last night, with many saying it should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for the health of adolescents.
The board is looking at five options for delayed start times after Superintendent Joshua Starr’s Bell Times Work Group examined research on adolescents’ sleep needs. In light of fiscal challenges, the BOE asked for options that are less than $10 million.
Starr endorsed the virtually free option of delaying start times at each level by 20 or 35 minutes, rather than changing the order of the start times.
But parents said even a 35 minute delay is not enough, describing their own struggles to help their children wake up before 6 a.m. to catch the bus on time. Iris Berendes, a freshman at Walt Whitman High School, voiced her opposition along with many others to any option with high school starting before 8:30 a.m. because of her natural sleep cycle.
“Sometimes I have found myself dozing off in some of my classes,” she said, adding she’s a straight-A student. “I know for a fact my grades will drop if I continue to lose sleep.”
The bell time options under consideration are: shifting all start times 35 minutes later or less; starting elementary school earliest, which may require changing the length of the school day; rearranging the order of start times; splitting the high school day and leaving no transportation for the later shift; or leaving start times the same but looking at other ways to alleviate high school schedules.
Many parents and sleep science experts testified about the research showing the benefits of starting school at a time that fits adolescents’ sleep rhythms, including better academic performance, fewer incidences of depression, reduced obesity and fewer car crashes.
Pamela Coukos has a son in eighth grade with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and said she was scared for next year when her son would have to be on the bus before 7 a.m.
“(Some days) he’s literally crawling out of bed because he’s too tired to stand up and I have to sit there and coach him through it,” she said. “You may think his story is so extreme that it doesn’t really tell us anything about the needs of thousands of students in Montgomery County, but Ben is like the canary in the coal mine…even if most kids can handle it, why should they?”
After reviewing the 2013 workgroup’s findings, Starr recommended a $21 million option of starting middle school first at 7:45 a.m., followed by high school at 8:15 a.m., which the board rejected. The new options under consideration still cost as much as $5.85 million, which BOE President Patricia O’Neill said is difficult in the upcoming budget climate.
“I really want to do something for our high school kids and middle school but the issue of money is a very real factor and today we learned that Governor (Larry) Hogan is cutting GCEI (Geographic Cost of Education Index) funding by $17 million and we know of the fiscal challenges here in Montgomery County so while $5 million may not seem like much to folks in the grand scheme of our budget, every penny is precious and I’m committed to protecting the classrooms first,” O’Neill said.
The cost of each option derives mainly from transportation, as buses need a certain amount of time between each route. Most buses currently make four trips daily.
Many of the parents said in the overall school budget of more than $2 billion, the $5 million required to change the start times should be inconsequential.
“Show me where else you can get this much return on your dollar. Let’s not be short-sighted here. The money we spend in adjusting bell times will come right back to us as these teen health problems decrease,” said Cecilia Peacock, who works in the United States Public Health Service and has three children in MCPS.
O’Neill said she did not see flexibility in the budget at this point, but hopes it could get better in the future.
“If you only change 20 or 35 minutes it’s something. It’s better than nothing, but I don’t want to ever lose sight of the fact that if we could do better we should,” she said.
At-large BOE member Jill Ortman-Fouse, elected to her first term in November, ran on “healthy start times” as part of her platform. She said she is less concerned with the cost.
“Our staff did a good job of coming up with some much more affordable options and the most important thing to me at this point is that we choose an option that is healthy for kids and works the best for both our school staff and families,” Ortman-Fouse said.
The board also has to balance the needs of elementary school parents who either do not want young kids to wake up earlier or would need to pay more for before and after care under the new options.
Lu Shean said her neighborhood school does not offer before care and she and her husband both work. With the current 8:50 a.m. start time for tier 1 elementary schools, Shean said she already gets to work after 9 a.m.
“We stay home until the school’s start time and we hope our employers are lenient and there are not too many meetings that we have to miss,” she said in her testimony. “I urge the Board of Education to consider any of the options in Option 2, switching elementary times to earlier.”
Ortman-Fouse also said she wants more information from staff on the current options for before and after care.
“There may be more solutions that we haven’t thought of yet and that’s why I want to look at all the options and I don’t think we can make assumptions about any of that,” she said. “Sometimes there’s some creative thinking that can be done to create more options for parents.”
In the “Analysis of Additional Options” published this January, board staff wrote there is little research on elementary school start times. Based on the limited research, the report said elementary school students need 10-11 hours of sleep and sleep deprivation negatively affects them.
Student Member of the Board Dahlia Huh, a senior at Clarksburg High School who was part of the 2013 work group, said she knows the board has to be fiscally responsible but she would personally appreciate more sleep.
“We really looked in depth at all the scientific research behind starting school later and then I was elected to the board so I think with all of the information given personally I do support starting school later,” she said. “I definitely wish as a senior I got more sleep…but as a board member it’s my responsibility to take in everything.”