Board to study school hours

Officials set to consider later start for high schools

No changes for next year

July 06, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County school board will review today options to push back the morning start times of the district's 12 high schools, which open earlier than any others in the state.

Parents from Severna Park and Annapolis high schools have called for later start times for years, backed by research showing that sleep cycles of teenagers prevent them from being alert at 7:17 a.m., when classes start. But any change would have ripple effects on many aspects of family life after school, including athletics and child care.

Representatives from the Citizens Advisory Committees of the two schools addressed the school board about the issue in May, and board President Edward P. Carey asked Superintendent Eric J. Smith to have staff members present an evaluation of alternatives. None would go into effect next year.

The school system's transportation department usually determines school start times based on coordination of busing schedules throughout the county, including trips to the school system's career technology centers as well as transportation for special-education students, the International Baccalaureate program and academies for English language learners at Old Mill and Annapolis high schools.

For more than a decade, buses have picked up high school students in time for a 7:17 a.m. opening, said Winship Wheatley, supervisor of transportation. Middle schools open between 7:55 a.m. and 9:10 a.m., and elementaries start their days between 8:05 a.m. and 9:45 a.m.

All of the alternatives affect schedules for after-school activities such as athletics. Changes would also affect families that rely on older brothers and sisters to supervise younger siblings in the afternoon. The school board also has to balance the safety risks of potentially drowsy drivers in the early morning against the risk to children walking home from school or from the bus stop after the sun has set.

One option - delaying the opening times of all schools - would entail no additional cost to the school system, Wheatley said, although it would affect after-school activities.

Under another alternative, high schools would open last instead of first - starting after 9:30 a.m. and ending the day by 4:10 p.m. The school system also could delay opening just the high schools by 45 minutes. That would require an investment of up to $4 million in personnel and buses, Wheatley said.

But proponents of delayed school starts say the school system should consider what's best for children, not just the costs.

"The department of transportation should serve the needs of the school system, not be the tail wagging the dog," said Jane Andrew, a former school board member and president of the Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education, which promotes well-rounded school curricula. "They have to look more at what does the research say about the need to do this."

Advocates for later start times say it's not just a question of teens developing the discipline to get to bed earlier. A growing body of research shows that adolescents' circadian rhythm - the cycle of alertness and sleepiness, which is regulated by hormones - shifts to later in the day.

For example, authors of a study of 60 Illinois high school seniors published in the journal Pediatrics last month favored pushing back school opening times because the students' schedules caused them to lose sleep and perform academic work when not at their best.

"All the academic excellence thrown at them is not going to sink in if they're not going to be receptive," said Judith Billage, an Annapolis High School parent who addressed the school board in May.

An informal survey of parent leaders at 80 schools by the countywide Citizens Advisory Committee in the spring showed they were split on the issue. Parents at four middle schools that started later than others - at 9:10 a.m. - expressed concern that their students would be leaving later. Teachers and other staff said they can't attend staff development activities as it is, said CAC President Sam Georgiou.

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