Howard school system takes look at start times

After months of gathering public input on the workings of Howard County schools during her Listen and Learn forums, Superintendent Renee Foose saw a common concern from parents and students: when the school day begins.

As such, the school system recently announced it has begun looking at school start times. The study is being conducted by the system's Office of Accountability and Continuous Improvement, under Chief Accountability Officer Grace Chesney.

"Students and parents alike inquired about the continued rationale for starting high schools earliest and elementary schools later," Foose said in a news release from the school system. "From a practical standpoint, I heard that the high school start time is contributing to sleepy adolescents and the elementary start times often cause day care issues for parents."

Foose added: "At this point, we are just beginning to study the relationship between start times and student well-being. The bottom line for me is if it's in the best interest of students to look at changing the schedule, I'm open to studying it as a first step."

Schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said the study "has no hard timeline." Currently, she said, central office is conducting a feasibility study, focusing on the impact any change would have, with cost being a driving factor.

The study and impact analysis will take a year, and if there is any feasibility in changing the schools' start times, surveys will be sent out to parents, students, teachers and the community.

"The survey has not been designed yet, and we might not even move into that phase if we find out it's not something we could even do," Amani-Dove said.

If any changes to school start times were to occur, Amani-Dove said, it would be for the 2015-16 school year.

Right now, all 12 high schools start at 7:20 a.m. The latest start time at some elementary schools is 9:25 a.m., while the earliest at one elementary is 8:15 a.m.

Schedule changes would affect a number of things across the board, Amani-Dove said: transportation, before- and after-school care through community organizations, athletic programs, local businesses where teenagers work or patronize, collective bargaining agreements with the Howard County Education Association and the budget. The biggest issues, she said, are transportation and budget.

If changing start times is found to be "cost-prohibitive," Amani-Dove said, the study will not move forward.

Amani-Dove said the system also was conducting a "comprehensive literature review."

"There's a lot of literature out there already on start times, adolescents and sleep patterns," she said. "We're also looking at what other school systems around the country are doing, and bench-marking against that right now."

School start times have long been a concern of some Board of Education members. Janet Siddiqui, a pediatrician, has advocated for conducting a study on the relationship between start times, sleep habits and student achievement.

"Students must come to school well-rested if they are going to be ready for learning," she said.

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