2015 | Opinion

My Two Cents: ‘Start School Later’ Group Wants More Than 20 Minutes

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My Two Cents is a weekly opinion column from Bethesda resident Joseph Hawkins. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BethesdaNow.com.
For the 2015-2016 school-year, Montgomery County Public Schools will move start times for its high schools and middle schools back 20 minutes. Finally, MCPS teens get more sleep.
Joseph HawkinsGetting that extra 20 minutes of sleep was not easy. It resulted from some serious organizing.
I was curious about how the organizing happened, and so last month I sat down with Ann Gallagher, one of the key people behind the local chapter of a group called Start School Later.
After we sat down, I sent Ann a list of questions via email, allowing her the opportunity to say more about the group and where it hopes to go after the 20-minute move. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joseph Hawkins: Why did the Montgomery County start time effort link up with the existing national Start School Later effort?
Ann Gallagher: While putting together our symposium in March 2013 to offer community members the opportunity to ask and answer questions related to real world experiences in changing bell times, we discovered the wealth of information from across the U.S.. The national arm of Start School Later reached out to us in support.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, we became a chapter of the volunteer-driven nonprofit. We shared our resources and they provided us with ideas from other school systems. Our symposium featured the athletic director of a large school system, the dean of a high school, a transportation engineer specializing in bus routing, a sleep leader and analyst of the National Sleep Foundation’s teen sleep poll and the pediatrician-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ statement of recommendation on school start times to address teen sleep requirements.

Hawkins: Tell readers a little about the main goals of Start School Later. For example, what in your mind are the ideal start time for elementary schools, middle schools and high schools?
Gallagher: Our main goal is implementation of the healthful start time for teenage students. We know a start time of no earlier than 8:30 a.m. permits students to be able to sleep the nine hours they need after the average fall-asleep time of 11 p.m.
It also permits students to reach all the benchmarks of health all adults would desire for children: brain development, brain function, injury reduction, accident reduction, grade improvement, reduced rates of obesity and more.
As for elementary schools, we are not tied to a specific time. Current evidence suggests this age group is better able to tolerate a start time before 8:30 a.m. Start School Later – Healthy Hours is actively opposed to any child being required to wait for a bus before the sun rises.
Lastly, we are not dictating the best start times for any particular county system. The Board of Education, in conjunction with the teachers union and the central office, need to find a time best for everyone. We are only pressing for healthful times.
Hawkins: The Board of Education agreed to delay school start times by 20 minutes. What is your group’s “big picture” reaction to this decision?
Gallagher: We are pleased the BOE recognizes the need to address this pressing health concern. We are pleased the 20 minutes means few teens will be standing on street corners in the dark before sun rise. We believe the improved visibility will mean fewer students involved in accidents. However, we are disappointed that this measure fails to address the basic need for adequate sleep for physical health and mental function.
We are not giving up!
Hawkins: What’s next?
Gallagher: We will continue to lobby the BOE. We will do everything in our power to educate the community on the benefits of a later start time and look for solutions at the state and national level if our local schools can’t address basic health needs. We will invite any and all supporters to read the sobering reports and join us in improving outcomes for every single county student.
Hawkins: One of the roadblocks to later start times at MCPS high schools is this notion that later start times throw high school sports and other after-school activities into chaos. For example, one belief is later start times will make it difficult to hold after-school team practices. In communities that have later start times, how has this issue been worked out? How can this issue be addressed in Montgomery County?
Gallagher: We wish there was leadership on this issue from health agencies in concert with school officials. Both the Maryland State Department of Education and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene called for Maryland middle and high schools to start after 8:30 a.m. for the health of their students.
We are not clear why these and all the other important findings are not shared with teachers through their teachers associations, parents through the PTAs, the NAACP and Casa de Maryland with its members.
Hawkins: Another roadblock to later start times seems to have emerged around the issue of high school students working. What exactly is being said about this issue? And what are the solutions to address the issue?
Gallagher: We are unable to find any cross-county evidence of a problem with students holding down jobs. For other districts, a shift in start times has not resulted in a reduction in working hours for employed youth. Most places have found the majority of students are working on weekends.
In other districts, businesses hiring teens have found their busy hours have shifted with school times. The businesses have changed their schedules to match the needs of their student customers and employees.
Hawkins: What are a few things that have surprised you about your efforts to alter start times?  The surprises can be both bad and good ones.
Gallagher: The good: The number of people in the community without children who find the start times to be outrageous.
As one petition supporter wrote, “Live near high school – see kids walking to school every day. They look like zombies! Follow the research – you’re doing a disservice to the kids to not consider the change!”
And the number of people willing to step up; more than 10,000 signatures in less than two months. These people were numerous, from all areas of the county, represented every demographic and were willing to share their painful stories of misalignment between start times and their students’ needs.
Bad: The BOE’s inability to make more than a 20-minute change despite a mandate from the parents of teens. And the persistent disregard for the evidence. Given the amazing, gap-closing improvements in core subjects by all categories of at-risk youth simply by starting school at 8:30 a.m., it is shocking that school leaders have actively taken steps to ensure an unhealthy start time.
Photo via MCPS