School Start Times

It started in a well-intentioned way a couple of years back. A number of studies show that teens are not getting enough sleep; they need between 8-10 hours a night (so the studies I read average it at 9 hours), and are averaging somewhere between 7-9 hours. We all know what it's like to be tired — you pay less attention, you are not as "sharp," you don't succeed as well. Recommendations from these studies included suggestions such as managing homework so kids are not up late, taking away technology devices so they are not texting/gaming/etc. so late (the glowing screens also are shown to be a sleep impairment), to insisting they go to bed at a reasonable time, to ... school start times.

Some vocal parents in Saint Paul have taken the latter as a way to solve some of the severe attention and test score issues Saint Paul high schools are facing, and have lobbied hard to change the start times for high school (currently generally at 7:30) to 8:30 or 9:30.

SPPS looked into it, but it soon became a transportation problem rather than a school problem. There were not enough school buses to effect that change. They looked at high school students using public buses, but MTC was not able to accommodate that many more riders. So it was tabled.

But recently is has come back, and it looks like within a month there will be a wholesale switch, with high schools changing from a 7:30 start to 9:30, muffle and magnet schools generally remaining at 8:30, and the lion's share of the community elementary schools (serving most of the preK-5 kids in the district) starting at 7:30. In my own daughter's case, this means that school will start — and end — 2 hours earlier.

The problem is that this is a problem not simply switched by a switch in start times. It's more complex than that, and those reasons are not being considered. It's bad deduction.

First of all, there are a lot fewer studies about elementary-aged kids and sleep. Those that exists, however, show that younger kids need significantly more sleep than adolescents, generally 10-12 hours. These children are also already showing signs of sleep deprivation in classrooms. That means that an elementary-aged child, who generally rises 2 hours before school begins, would have to go to bed between 5:30 and 7:30pm — which is often before at least one parent would even get home from work.

It also means that schools would end significantly earlier in the day, generally at 2pm. Again, in a fairly traditional working day of 8:30-6, that means that the child's school day would end halfway through the parent's work day. A parent would either lose literally half the work day, or the child would need to be in after school care (pretty much right up to bedtime, given the scenario above).

Current after-school offerings at SPPS are 1) over capacity and 2) expensive. Pay-per-service care such as Discovery Club and S'More Fun are full throughout the district, with no more staff, or especially space, to add more. Current cost is $11.80 for 2 hours, so at 4 hours a day that would cost us $118 a week, or about $4,900 a year (which is similar to the cost of simply pulling her from SPPS and sending her to FT parochial school — NOTE: in fact, having just checked the tuition, Discovery Club as outlined above would cost substantially more, in fact almost twice as much, as sending her to all-day parochial school at St. Thomas More). The district's free after-school option is EDL, which is even more limited; currently in most schools is is offered 2 or 3 days a week, for 2 hours, and for limited grades. In Beatrix's school, again as an example, EDL is a great program, but is only offered for 1.75 hours 2 days a week, for a total of 50 days throughout the year, and only for grade 3-5.

Nor is there any direct correlation between later start times and student success. The studies assert that high-schoolers "do better" with more sleep. None of the data ties that to higher test scores, or higher grades, or anything that can be evaluated, or even to safer schools or fewer students leaving the district, which I am sure is what concerns the school board. They just say it's "better."

Nor is the financial cost being taken into serious consideration. While the earlier proposal was deemed "too expensive," the current 3-tier system proposed is "only" 2 million dollars more. 2 million dollars, on a district that is already looking at a 20 million dollar deficit this year (as opposed to the 15 million faced last year). Where will even that 2 million come from? If we did magically have 2 million extra, couldn't we use it for things that are categorically demonstrated to increase student success, such as smaller class sizes?

The start times are dependent upon the bussing — remember 2 years back when there was an enormous problem with bussing, and it took the majority of the school year to finally get kids to and from school on time? Or the fact that bussing used to be for kids over 1 mile from school, and it was moved back to half a mile several years ago, dramatically increasing the number of busses needed?

Instead, we have come up with a compromise system that starts the majority of students dramatically and dangerously earlier, and spends more money, in order to only possibly solve another issue.

But wait, it's even simpler! Those very same oft-quoted studies have one sort-of buried suggestion — that the optimal school start time for teenagers is between 10-10:30. So we COULD still achieve these same goals, at presumably no cost to the district and no after school consequence, by simply flipping the tiers to 8:30/9:30/10:30? Why aren't we investigating this option?

If I was brilliant, I would have some resounding end paragraph here. But I need to get to work, and my child needs to get to her pre-school violin lesson, the one she would lose if school started earlier (and remember, her school had to cut music due to budget deficits).

ETA: To make clear my summary points:

Disassociating parent convenience and other factors,

1) Is there any definitive, measurable proof that later start times for high school increases student achievement? Because I don't see any.

2) Without such proof, should we spend a minimum of 2 million dollars extra in busses alone on it? Definitive no. If we have an extra 2 million lying around, it should be spent on things specifically correlated to student success, such as smaller class sizes.

2) If there is not such proof, is that something we should do anyway just in case it would help? If it would cost money, no, see point #2 above. If it would not cost money (such as moving high schools to a 10:30 start from the current 7:30, and then having an 8:30/9:30/10:30 tier)— maybe.


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