Biding the times

Aug. 18, 2014 @ 04:55 PM

The Durham Public Schools board prudently opted for caution last week on an issue that was likely to roil parents and teachers alike because it hits them in an important area: their schedules and routines.

DPS staff, at the request of the board’s Administrative Services Committee, has been researching the impact of starting school days later – for most schools in the scenarios envisioned, a half-hour later. 

What the staff report indicated is that “changes to bell schedules are riddled with pros and cons, many of which are determined by the viewpoint of those that are affected by the changes. We have to decide if the desire/benefits from changing bell schedules outweigh the challenges associated with those changes.”

After the board received that report last week, it decided to punt.

“We’re not recommending any change in start times for the 2015-16 school year and probably not even after that,” school board Chairwoman Heidi Carter said last week. “It would take a substantial amount of time to do the outreach.”

The staff report noted that research indicates that, at least for high school students, the 7:30 a.m. start time for most schools is hardly optimal given the developmental stage of teenagers.

“Everything we know about the brain’s timing and teenagers screams at us that they need to sleep later and they need more sleep and that we need to start school later,” Carter said.

But many other factors may override what research suggests, at least in the short term.

“Most conversations with school staff, both internal to DPS and externally, did not reference more sleep for high school-aged students when responding to questions about bell schedules,” staffers wrote in the report to the board.
Concerns noted in the report include the effect a later start time might have on after-school programs, elementary school children arriving home later than they already do, and the impact on parents’ work schedules.

Simply moving all starting times later would mean elementary school children would be arriving home even later in the afternoon, a concern, as well as disrupting morning schedules that are more dependent on parental participation for elementary students than for older ones.

One solution would be to move high schools to a later start time but leave elementary schools unchanged. The school-bus transportation system, however, already is built on a staggered bus schedule. State budget decisions this year portend less funding – certainly not more – for school transportation.

Given the complexity of the issue, Carter’s advice rings true that “what we have to do is convince ourselves and also convince all of the stakeholders…” that benefits of later starts might outweigh the costs.

“We have to raise awareness about this issue,” she said. That’s sensible and worth taking as much time as necessary before any changes.