Proposal to shift school start times stirs debate

Phone survey underway to gather public opinion on the subject

Posted: Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Changing school start times in the fall may shake up family schedules and extracurricular activities, but it's what's best for students from an instructional standpoint, Juneau School District officials told some 60 people who attended a public forum on the topic Tuesday.

The forum, held at Thunder Mountain High School, was called to discuss an administration proposal to shift high school start times 75 minutes later to 9:15 a.m., middle school start times 30 minutes earlier to 8 a.m., and elementary school times up to 75 minutes earlier to 8 a.m. or 8:20 a.m., depending on the school. All of the school principals support the change, as do several site councils that have discussed it.

"I do want you to know, this is not a recommendation we came to quickly or frivolously. It's rooted in what we believe is best for older teens and younger" kids, Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling said.

Scandling referred to a body of research tying later start times for teenagers to better school performance and health. She said tardiness, attendance and grades would be used to judge the change's efficacy.

Studies have shown that hormonal changes in teenagers biologically wire them to stay up later at night and wake up later than younger children and adults. Scandling, a former high school teacher, said in her experience, that means teenagers "are zombies in the morning."

"Behaviorally, they're not a problem - cause they're not functioning," she said.

The National Sleep Foundation likens the consequences of disrupting natural sleep patterns to the effects of jet lag - difficulty thinking and performing well. The foundation is a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that supports education, research and advocacy of sleep-related issues.

Under the proposed schedule changes, school days at every level would be about six and a half hours long. That's not a change for middle and elementary schools, but reclaims some time lost at the high school level caused by past bus scheduling changes.

Parents' questions and comments revealed concerns about how the changes would affect bus routes, after-school activities, part-time jobs and the safety of younger children outside on dark winter mornings.

Kevin Hanson, manager of the district's bus contractor First Student, has been working with the district officials on a various scenarios to accommodate the changes - with a directive to keep the cost of service flat. Hanson worked out the logistics, though it would mean more crowded buses and longer rides for Harborview and Auke Bay Elementary School students.

Of the activities and after-school jobs issue, Scandling said it will create some problems, but that the district is working to minimize them.

"We're not pretending like it's not a problem," Scandling said.

Of the 10 people in the audience who shared their opinion during the comment session of the meeting, seven said they supported it and three said they opposed it.

The Anchorage polling firm Hellenthal & Associates is conducting a telephone survey that began last week, which should offer a more objective picture of public opinion on the proposed changes. The survey is based on a random sample of the families of the district's 5,000 students and should wrap up next week, district spokeswoman Kristin Bartlett said.

After the meeting, Judy Campbell, a mother of three and member of the minority on this issue with her site council at Gastineau Elementary, said the schedule change would mean her oldest child would be home before her younger children, creating a baby-sitting gap. Campbell also said accommodating teenagers may be sending the wrong message.

"I think catering to them is not conducive to being successful adults," Campbell said.

The district has made at least two failed attempts in the past to start high school later, though Scandling said a better understanding in the public of teen brain function means the effort may have more traction this time around.

The proposal is expected to go before the School Board at its next two regular meetings into May. Scandling said the administration hopes to have a final decision on the proposal before the end of the school year.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail

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