While parents, educators and researchers are lobbying school administrators across the state and nationwide to set later start times for high school students, one area district is going in the other direction.
When classes resume in Baltimore County this fall, several schools will start five to 15 minutes earlier than last year.
The county board of education approved new hours at 18 schools last month to accommodate changes to bus schedules. Seven schools will start later, but 11 — most of them in the county's northwestern county — are set to begin five to 15 minutes earlier.
Those changes buck a national movement to promote later school start times for teenage students. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that middle and high schools push their first classes of the day back to 8:30 a.m. or later. The academy warns that adolescent sleep deprivation can hurt academic performance, cause physical and mental health problems, and increase the risk of car accidents involving drowsy drivers.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reiterated those concerns in a report to state officials in December, and recommended schools begin classes no earlier than 8 a.m. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has also backed later start times.
Several Maryland districts are studying those recommendations. The national advocacy group Start School Later has successfully lobbied officials in Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties to push back their opening bells.
"Every increment earlier we start, we lose those moments where students are maximally able to learn," said Ann Gallagher, co-director of research and development for the Annapolis-based group. "When we start them at 7:25, we are increasing the odds of poor health."
The changes in Baltimore County have drawn criticism from some parents.
"They're getting their best sleep when they're having to get up," said Debbie Hanlon, president-elect of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Franklin High School in Reisterstown. The school will open at 7:40 a.m. in the fall, five minutes earlier than last year.
School officials say they are sympathetic, but have no plans to revisit the schedule. They say they changed start times to accommodate new bus routes when Lyons Mills Elementary School opens in Owings Mills.
"We understand parents' concerns in terms of opening schools later and the impact on students," said Mychael Dickerson, a spokesman for the county schools. "Our transportation and instructional teams consider this along with other factors before introducing or changing school hours.
"The goal is to make sure we keep children's best interest as the top priority and balance that with operating efficient and effective bus routes and start times."
Randallstown and Owings Mills high schools will open this fall at 7:25 a.m.
Andra Broadwater, a Catonsville mother, said she started a chapter of Start School Later in Baltimore County last year because she doesn't want her elementary school-age children to suffer from sleep deprivation when they reach high school.
"The [Catonsville High School] bus rolls down the street here around the time I roll out of bed," she said.
Broadwater said later start times are especially important for students who have long bus rides. For example, according to the Owings Mills High bus schedule, some students boarded buses as early as 5:45 a.m. last school year.
"Putting kids on the bus at 5:45 is absurd," she said. "It's just working against kids. They don't learn well. They don't function."
Sue Battle-McDonald, a Timonium mother involved with Start School Later in Baltimore County, said research about student sleep patterns should have more influence on class times than bus schedules.
"I would love to see school start time decisions made in the context of looking at that data," said Battle-McDonald, who has two children who attend Dulaney High School, which starts at 7:45.
But some say later start times could cause other problems. Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said some teachers might oppose later start times because it could affect their schedules with their own children.
"Any time there's a change you're not used to, there are going to be people that are unhappy about it," she said.
High schools in Anne Arundel County start class at 7:17 a.m., the earliest in the state. But the school board voted last month to set the opening bell back for the 2016-2017 school year. Officials will decide the new start times in February, district spokesman Robert Mosier said.
In Montgomery County, advocates lobbied for three years and won an extra 20 minutes, meaning schools will open at 7:45 a.m. this fall. Gallagher, of Start Schools later, said it's not enough; she wants it pushed back to 8:30 a.m.
"At least our children will not be standing on the street half asleep in the dark," she said. "Safety-wise, it's an improvement."
Howard County school officials are exploring later start times. A survey of teachers, students, parents and community members showed that 74 percent want later start times for high school students, but school officials say it's not an easy change to make.
At a meeting last month, parents and school officials discussed options for pushing the opening back, considering cost, traffic, and other concerns — including the morning breakfast for low-income students.
Mark Donovan, head of the Start School Later chapter in Howard County, said early school openings hit lower-income students harder because they have no choice but to take the bus whenever it comes.
"Upper-income-level kids have the advantage," he said. "Parents can drive them to school or they may have a car.
"We're throwing minorities and lower-income students under the bus, literally."
Baltimore and Harford and Carroll counties are not changing their schedules for the coming school year, according to school officials in those districts.
The issue has attracted the attention of state lawmakers, who voted this year for a state study of "healthy school hours."
Legislation that would have encouraged districts to open after 8:30 a.m. passed the House but failed in the Senate.
"As legislators, as parents, as teachers, it's something we should be concerned about," said Del. Aruna Miller, the Montgomery County Democrat who introduced that bill.
Ryan Hanlon, Debbie Hanlon's son, says he gets an average of four hours of sleep per night. For Hanlon, it's the workload that is the challenge.
"If it's one of the days I was up late doing chapter notes until 3, I will come home and take a nap, but ultimately that makes me stay up later," he said. "It's a no-win scenario."
Debbie Hanlon said it's particularly frustrating that the school system made the decision to open her son's school earlier on its own.
"There's no input from the stakeholders," she said.
Baltimore County start times
Several high schools in the northwest part of the county will be starting school five to 15 minutes earlier in the fall, a move that is the opposite of what many experts recommend for high school start times:
Franklin High: 7:40 a.m.
New Town High: 7:45 a.m.
Owings Mills High: 7:25 a.m.
Pikesville High: 7:40 a.m.
Randallstown High: 7:25 a.m.
An earlier version of this story said that Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Catonsville starts classes at 7:10 a.m. The school starts at 7:30 a.m. In addition, an earlier version said that 40 percent of Howard community members surveyed wanted a later high school start time. In the survey, 74 percent said they wanted a later high school start time. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.