Education Matters: Bill on later school start times advances; Islamophobia and getting rid of hate

San Dieguito Union High School District trustee John Salazar has asked SDUHSD superintendent Eric Dill and board president Amy Herman to place on the May 11 board agenda the proposed state bill that would require all public middle and high schools to start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

“Let’s show some leadership and support this bill,” Salazar wrote to Dill and Herman in an email. “It is good for the kids, and will bring in more revenue too.”

The bill – SB 328 – has gained approval by the Senate Education Committee and is moving through the legislature, despite opposition from the California Teachers Association.

Bill author Democratic Sen. Anthony Portantino said sound research from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control indicates overwhelmingly that later start times are healthier for teenage students whose sleep patterns in adolescence make early rising difficult.

Studies conducted over the last two decades have shown conclusively that later start times promote student health and well-being, raise academic achievement and improve attendance.

Reduced absenteeism means more revenue for school districts, most of which are funded based on the average daily attendance of students.

It’s not just adolescents who would benefit from later start times.

A recent study published in “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience” cites more data showing that “early education start times for students in the 14–24 age range are linked to chronic, irrecoverable sleep loss of more than two hours each day.”

Based on this extended age range, the authors posit that college classes starting earlier than 9 a.m. are as equally detrimental to college students as they are for high schoolers.

The NPR article on this is titled “Down With 8 A.M. Classes: Undergrads Learn Better Later In The Day, Study Finds.”

School districts have been presented with irrefutable evidence for decades, but few have taken any action. At last, someone in the California legislature is forcing their hand.

Some history

Back in 2002 and 2003, former Torrey Pines High School parent and community activist Wayne Dunlap worked tirelessly to get SDUHSD to change the start time at TPHS from the ungodly hour of 7:15 a.m. to the barely reasonable 8:15 a.m.

The only trustee back then who is still serving on the SDUHSD board is Joyce Dalessandro, who was first elected in 1996.

Dunlap lost his battle, even after gathering hundreds of signatures and armed with studies and more studies to show that later start times are better for students.

Emails Dunlap wrote to me at the time reveal the depth of his insight into the insurmountable problems he faced.

“School boards are not usually pro-active,” he wrote. “They come together once a month to discuss an agenda that is pretty much set by school officials, not the board. Then they go home. Rarely do any of the board members push their own ideas.

“Also, school boards are the most status quo organizations in our society … They are easily swayed by status quo arguments … Hence, not much is changed and our schools remain doing things the same without much question.

“So, if you want something done, you have to mount a strong, consistent, well-organized, intelligent campaign to get something on the board agenda and then passed. The community must initiate change because the school system will not.”

Dunlap and supporters asked for one hour – they got 30 minutes. This was called a compromise by the board and a huge disappointment by the petitioners.

Amy Herman said she would be willing to discuss the issue at the next board meeting but was not comfortable voting on it yet, even though any vote on whether to support the bill would be purely symbolic. She said she’d like to hear more from parents on how later start times would impact them.

San Dieguito supt. Dill said the item will be placed on the May 11 agenda for discussion only, no vote.

No-hate zones

In an unrelated subject, San Diego Unified School District’s controversial new anti-bullying campaign designed to help protect Muslim students has received nationwide attention.

In developing the initiative, SDUSD was aided by the Council for American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.

Under the plan, SD Unified may include social studies lessons on Islam, list Islamic holidays on the school calendar, and create “safe spaces” for Muslim students at schools.

Critics have said it favors Muslim students over other cultures and religions, and still others say it violates the separation of church and state.

The district denies that it’s giving Muslim students special attention.

Though this is a noble effort, there are students of other religions that may need protection as well.

For example, according to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents nationwide at non-Jewish elementary, middle and high schools increased 106 percent last year, from 114 in 2015 to 235 in 2016. This increase accelerated in the first three months of 2017, when 95 incidents were reported.

“These incidents need to be seen in the context of a general resurgence of white supremacist activity in the United States,” said Oren Segal, director of the ADL Center on Extremism.

Locally, the ADL recorded a 33 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in San Diego County in 2016 over 2015. And in the first three months of 2017 the ADL said there was a four-fold increase over the same time period in 2016.

In a news release, Tammy Gillies, ADL’s Regional Director in San Diego, expressed her concern for this upward trend in anti-Semitism, stating, “Not only have we seen a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents directed at the San Diego Jewish community, but perhaps most concerning of all is the dramatic increase of these incidents in schools.”

“Schools are a microcosm of the country,” said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. “Children absorb messages from their parents and the media, and bring them into their schools and playgrounds. We are very concerned the next generation is internalizing messages of intolerance and bigotry.”

The 2016 presidential election and the heightened political atmosphere played a role in the increase, according to the ADL.

Yes, there’s appalling bullying of Muslim students based on religion, but Muslims aren’t the only ones targeted.

I would bet there are few adults who did not experience some kind of bullying or torment from peers in their school days – for being too tall, too short, too stocky, too thin, too disabled, too dark, too pale, too gay, too geeky, too Greek, too Italian, too Asian, too Hispanic, too African-American, too Irish, too Christian, too rich, too poor, too ... different.

Perhaps a program that seeks to educate students and eliminate hatred against all forms of bias would be a better and more broad-based approach.

The ADL’s “No Place for Hate” incorporates ways to counter bigotry in all forms, including sexual orientation as well as prejudice based on religion, race and gender.

The goal of “No Place for Hate” is “to inspire a national movement led by students and educators who are committed to using the power of positive peer influence to build inclusive and safe schools in which all students can thrive,” according to the San Diego ADL website.

“No Place for Hate,” the site states, “is an organizing framework for K-12 schools committed to creating sustainable change that leads to improved school climate.”

The program utilizes anti-bias and anti-bullying resources “to form one powerful message that all students have a place to belong.”

“No Place for Hate” is just one example of an inclusive K-12 educational program that addresses how to battle all kinds of discrimination. There are more.

Educating children against Islamophobia is essential, but so is education against other forms of bigotry. All children at schools and colleges have the right to study and learn in environments that are non-threatening and free from bullying.

Entire schools should be safe spaces.

PostScript: Regarding the discussion on later school start times, Wayne Dunlap wrote to me this week with his thoughts. He said he didn’t feel they lost the battle.

“We did win,” he said. Getting a half hour "was amazing, given nothing was done on this, even in light of overwhelming support.”

He said a poll done by students (of students and faculty) and parents (of other parents) showed over 90 percent support from the Torrey Pines community for later start times.

Wayne Dunlap is now an award-winning travel photojournalist and author of the popular 5-star travel book Plan Your Escape. His website is UnhookNow.com.

Opinion columnist and Senior Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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