Durham County

Durham Public Schools to parents: Give new school starting times more time

According to a survey conducted last spring, 53 percent of high school parents want Durham Public Schools to return to the old bell schedule.
According to a survey conducted last spring, 53 percent of high school parents want Durham Public Schools to return to the old bell schedule. TAMMY LJUNGBLAD MCT

Despite a survey that shows a majority of parents want Durham Public Schools to return to the old bell schedule, no such change will occur next school year, if ever.

Too few people responded to the survey taken in the spring, members said at a committee meeting Thursday. After less than a year, they also said it’s difficult to measure whether the new school starting times have delivered hoped-for improvements in academics, attendance, discipline and overall student well-being.

“I just see this as a data point,” Chairman Mike Lee said. “I’m not even thinking about whether we change it back.”

That sentiment to return to the former schools opening schedule was particularly strong among high school parents who responded to the survey. High school students now start school at 9 a.m., instead of 7:30 a.m. as they did before the new bell schedule took effect at the start of the 2016-17 school year.

Fifty-three percent of high school parents said they prefer the old schedule. Twenty-seven percent want to keep the current schedule. The rest want a compromise or didn’t respond to the question.

Board members said the changes should be given more time to achieve the outcomes the board sought when it approved them.

They were made in large part based on research by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has recommended that middle schools and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later to align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents.

“This was not undertaken lightly,” said school board member Natalie Beyer. “It was evidenced based.”

But school board Vice Chairwoman Minnie Forte-Brown said the board must pay attention to the results of the survey and not allow the bell schedule change to run on endlessly if public sentiment is against it and it does not achieve the outcomes board is seeking.

“If we’re surveying people there has to be a reason why were doing it,” Forte-Brown said.

School board member Steve Unruhe said that after another year of “hard data” the board should be prepared to begin a serious discussion about the changes.

Elementary schools and and high schools essentially swapped start times under the changes, with many elementary schools starting at 7:45 a.m.

Middle school bell schedules remained virtually unchanged with most classes starting at 7:30 a.m.

The survey results showed that 37 percent of elementary school parents want to return to the old schedule and 34 percent said they’d like to keep the current schedule. The rest want a compromise or did not respond.But high school parents said that after the shift, students simply stayed up later and that the median amount of sleep remains seven to eight hours a night.

Forty-three percent of high school parents disagreed when responding to a question about whether their children are getting more sleep compared to 33 percent who did not.

A majority of elementary school respondents said their children are getting less sleep, eight to nine hours per night compared to nine-plus hours before.

School staffers were also asked to weigh in on the changes. Many of them would also like to see the bell schedule return to the way it was.

Fifty-three percent of high school staffers want to see the district return to the old bell schedule while 28 percent want to keep the same schedule.

Among school personnel, elementary school staffers appear to enjoy the new schedule the most, with 43 percent wanting to keep the current schedule. About 20 percent want a return to the old schedule.

The survey also asked parents and school staffers to rate the impact of the bell schedule change on students, families and staff.

Sixty percent of elementary school parents and high school parents believe the change has had a negative impact on children and families. And around 60 percent of high school staffers believe the change is negative for staffers, families and students.

The majority of elementary school staffers said the new schedule is negative for families and staffers.

Thirty-five percent of staffers think the change is negative for students while 34 percent deemed it positive for students.

The survey was conducted by the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina, a policy research and evaluation initiative within the Department of Public Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

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