Howard school board creates committee to look at school start times

Changing school start times in Howard County could take a long time, but the school system wants to "do it right," Superintendent Renee Foose said.

"We want to take our time and look at every nuance," Foose said at the Board of Education meeting Thursday, Feb. 20. "As we got into this, we were amazed at what we were finding. It was like peeling back layers of an onion, one layer after the next. We want to do it right. We want a model that's sustainable, that's student-friendly and family-friendly."

A staff group charged by Foose last fall to explore options for changing school start times gave a preliminary report to the board at Thursday's meeting. Last year at this time, school officials announced the system would begin looking at school start times; a year before that, the Board of Education asked a "sleep survey" go out to parents to gauge how much sleep students were getting. But the debate surrounding school start times dates back much further than that.

"This has been discussed and debated for a couple of decades now, actually," said David Bruzga, administrative director of high schools. The system's transportation office analyzed the impact of later school start times in 1997, and in 2004, the board reviewed school start times when the decision was made to add 15 minutes to the middle- and high-school bell schedule.

Most recently, the debate has resurfaced in the region because of "biological evidence that surrounds adolescents' sleep patterns," Bruzga said, which create need to reassess the high school start time. Bruzga also said that in districts with later start times, there are fewer instances of students being late for school, sleeping in class, and fewer car crashes

"Beginning early in the morning certainly affects student performance, alertness, critical thinking, attendance and engagement," Bruzga said.

A change to school start times could take several years, if at all, as there is no definitive timeline for a committee chartered by a unanimous board vote Thursday.

Currently, all Howard County high schools start at 7:25 a.m. Middle schools start between 7:40 and 8:25 a.m., and elementary schools start between 8:10 and 9:25 a.m. While the committee chartered by the board will look at the impact of changing all school start times, the work group only explored changing high school start times.

Staff conducted an impact analysis of shifting the high school start time to 8:15 a.m., 50 minutes later than it is now. If the 8:15 a.m. start time were implemented, it would be at a cost of $20 million because of changes in transportation and food services.

There are other issues beyond the budget, like pre-kindergarten, after-school programs, athletics, jobs and child care. Foose said she "cannot emphasize enough all the intricacies" associated with changing school start times.

"Every single one of our families will be impacted by this, and not all in a positive way," she said. "We need to be slow, we need to be thorough."

So while board members Brian Meshkin and Cindy Vaillancourt, long-time supporters of changing school start times, asked staff to expedite the process, Foose and other board members urged caution.

"Even if we do this, there is going to have be a huge window of time for educating the public and allowing people to adjust their individual, personal schedules in anticipation of these changes," said Sandra French. "For anyone to think this will happen quickly, (I would say that) I can't see it happening for at least three years."

With the chartering of a committee, the school system now moves into "phase two" of looking at a different school start time. The committee, according to the report, will gather community input through surveys and develop a timeline for following phases. The group will review bus contracts and look at transportation routes and tiers (for example, when a bus finishes a high school route and begins a middle school route). A report would be given to the board and public on the second phase, and then the system would look at developing "scalable and fundable models, prepare a detailed impact analysis for each school" and report back to the board and public again, according to the report. The last phase would be actually developing an implementation model.

While there is no set timeline for any of the phases, but the board asked that the committee complete a report by this fall.

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