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Maryland school systems study later start for high schools

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It is 6:45 a.m. and Severna Park High School freshman Chelsea Rogers has a decision to make: skip the most important meal of the day or skip the school bus.

"There's no time for breakfast," said Rogers after reaching the corner of Hill Road and Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard in Severna Park, where the bus will take her to school in time for classes to begin at 7:17 a.m. She said she hadn't had a bite since 8 p.m. the night before and wouldn't eat again until lunch.

Roger's story is a familiar refrain for Anne Arundel County high school students — and for years it's been echoed by parents, health care professionals and community leaders across the nation who are concerned that early school start times hurt classroom performance, especially among teenagers.

In recent weeks, those concerns have spurred efforts on the state and local levels to find a solution.

The General Assembly is considering a bill to establish a task force to study later start times and make recommendations for Maryland public schools by the end of the year. The task force would include representatives from the state's board of education and health department, a mental health professional and a doctor who specializes in sleep disorders.

"There is extensive academic research that shows a positive correlation between school start times, academic performance and student health," said Del. Steven R. Schuh, an Anne Arundel County Republican and sponsor of the bill. "Later school start times also mean later school ending times. When kids get out of school early they have more opportunities to get into trouble and become involved with unhealthy activities."

A hearing on the bill has been scheduled on Friday.

In Anne Arundel, the school system's transportation division studied the logistics and financial impact of starting school later — as much as 21/2 hours later for high schools.

Howard County school officials also are studying start times and the impact of school schedules on the health and well-being of high school students. Superintendent Renee A. Foose said she had heard concerns that current start times lead to sleepy adolescents and cause day care issues for elementary school parents.

And in Montgomery County, an online petition calling for later high school start times was circulated, and a work group has been convened to explore the issue and make recommendations.

Among those advocating for change in localities and supporting the state legislation is Start School Later, a national organization based in Annapolis that tries to raise awareness about how early school start times affect children and teenagers.

"Early school start times have been a challenge to school systems all over the USA since the 1990s, but we believe that by bringing the local efforts together, with the help of social media, we may at last be able to resolve this serious public health and safety problem," said Terra Ziporyn Snider, co-founder and executive director of Start School Later.

Carroll County also has reexamined its school start times, though with more of an eye toward finding cost savings. As a result, start times changed systemwide this year — with some schools starting later and others earlier.

Superintendent Stephen Guthrie had requested each department head examine operations to improve efficiency. The transportation department, through restructuring school schedules and realigning bus routes, eliminated 40 buses and created annual cost savings of at least $1.2 million, school officials said.

Carroll County high schools now begin at 7:30 a.m. and end at 2:20 p.m.

Currently, all Anne Arundel high schools open at 7:17 a.m. and close at 2:05 p.m. Middle school and elementary school opening and closing times vary between 7:55 a.m. and 3:55 p.m.

The county school system's transportation division created the School Hours Study, a 20-page review exploring logistics of its school hours and transportation as well as financial and nonfinancial impacts. It came as community activists presented a petition supporting later start times to the school board earlier this year.

The study suggests three alternatives to the current school hours format, including pushing back all high school schedules to start at 9:45 a.m. and end at 4:33 p.m.

School officials said more discussion is needed among school administrators and parents, and any changes would require school board approval.

And financial hurdles would have to be considered, officials said. "Many of the options would have significant budgetary implications requiring higher levels of funding commitments from the county government," according to the report.

Snider, of Start School Later, criticized the Anne Arundel study.

"The study is, at best, incomplete," Snider said. "It may be a study of the theoretical costs of three theoretically possible ways to change school start times, but it overlooks the very real and proven costs of not changing start times, as well as the real and proven benefits of changing them."

Snider said the study doesn't look at the "vast body of evidence regarding sleep patterns and their relationship to school start times."

But Anne Arundel Schools' spokesman Bob Mosier said the study was never intended to study how school start times relate to sleep habits.

"I don't think at any point did anybody have the intention of doing a sleep-benefit analysis as part of this study," Mosier said. "The intent of this study was to look at the current school system operational set up, the logistics involved in any change and the impact of those changes if they were to happen."

On Friday morning, Severna Park High School junior Bronzell Wilson said he could stand for a change.

"I don't like it. That's it," Wilson said of the current start time.

Wilson and Rogers catch the bus across the street from Severna Park resident and Start School Later co-founder Mirabel Ibrahim. Though her three children aren't old enough to attend Severna Park High, she said she empathizes with the sleepy-eyed students she watches from her house.

Ibrahim pointed out that with clocks changing for daylight savings this weekend, "it will be pitch black dark on this bus stop" on Monday.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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