Education Matters: Congratulations premature on start times resolution

Yes, it was purely symbolic. Nevertheless, San Dieguito trustees missed a perfect opportunity at the Sept. 14 board meeting to take a courageous stand in support of later school start times.

San Dieguito Union High School District Superintendent Eric Dill asked trustees to consider adopting a resolution in favor of Senate bill 328 which would have mandated that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

The vote was 2-3, with the usual suspects on either side. My earlier congratulations for proposing the resolution was premature.

This is not an arbitrary or minor debate. This is a serious public health issue for teenagers.

Trustees are the guardians of the children who attend their schools. Their job is to adopt public policies that help strengthen academic performance and future success, and improve the mental and physical health and well-being of students.

Later school start times addresses all these concerns.

There is little disagreement that starting school early is bad for adolescents. The scientific evidence is irrefutable.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recognized the significant problems associated with early start times for middle and high schools, saying chronic sleep deprivation can lead to increased auto accidents, poor academic performance, tardiness, absenteeism and depression.

The AAP advocates start times no earlier than 8:30 a.m., the hour mandated in the Senate bill.

But the teachers union was inexplicably opposed to SB 328, as was the California School Boards Association.

Both organizations lobbied their constituents heavily to write letters in opposition to the bill, which incidentally did not pass the Assembly on Sept. 15. Democratic Senator Anthony Portantino, the bill’s sponsor, promised to revive the bill in January.

CSBA opposed SB 328 but not the research, said CSBA spokesperson Troy Flint in an email.

“CSBA does not oppose later start times,” he wrote. “CSBA opposes a statewide mandate on school start times.”

In a summer 2017 CSBA publication article, the subtitle explains this view: “The research is significant, but local control must stay intact.”

From the story: “The list of potential impacts on adolescents from chronic sleep loss is deeply alarming. On the academic side, the list includes impairments to attention span and memory, as well as dips in attendance or dropouts. Even more alarming are possible impacts to mental and physical health, including increased risk of obesity and metabolic dysfunction, increased use of caffeine and other stimulants, emotional dysregulation, increased risk of anxiety, depression and even thoughts of suicide. … CSBA is supportive of this research …”

However, CSBA has taken the position that this one-size-fits-all approach is better left for individual school districts to determine.

Problems with local control

In general, local control is preferred. But in this case it won’t work if it’s done piecemeal.

Athletics, Dill said at the Sept. 14 meeting, “is the biggest issue here.”

The only solution that would require after-school sports schedules to accommodate later school start times is for all high schools to start later and end later in the day.

Although Dill didn’t exactly make a forceful pitch for the resolution, he did say the bill “would put everything on a level playing field.”

In an email after the vote, Dill drew a distinction between the terms “consider adoption” and “adopt.”

“As I read the executive summary, it’s fairly neutral because it talks about the arguments both in favor and in opposition,” Dill wrote. “The recommendation was that the board ‘consider adoption.’” That is different, he clarified, from asking them to adopt it.

He did seem to agree, however, that without this state-wide mandate, athletic schedules which are set up for early dismissal would remain the same. So those athletes attending schools with later end times would need to miss last-period classes to participate in their sport.

If some districts adopted later start and end times and others didn’t, students “would be forced to make decisions of academics vs. athletics,” Dill said at the board meeting.

Local control in this case cannot, will never, work, unless all districts comply.

Other arguments against later start times include the inconvenience for parents (keep in mind that school is for students and not parental daycare), and non-athletic after-school activities and clubs (which can be held in the morning hours before school starts).

Those who say kids need to be prepared for the work force by rising early aren’t understanding the biological need that teenagers have for more morning sleep. They do grow out of this sleep phase delay as adults.

Furthermore, the bill allows zero periods, so early-bird kids can still choose to come to school before 8:30 a.m.

Clearly, there are challenges. Logistics would be difficult.

If all local high schools start at the same 8:30 a.m. hour, traffic congestion is likely, so start times would need to be staggered, which means some schools might need to start even later than 8:30 a.m.

And some areas in the state, farming or other rural communities, for example, need parents at work at a very early hour.

Nevertheless, I believe the benefits to students outweigh the challenges.

Trustee John Salazar, who pushed to bring the resolution before the board, said he was pleased that Dill was advocating support and was critical of fellow board members Joyce Dalessandro, Beth Hergesheimer and Amy Herman who all voted no. Board president Herman was called upon last and cast the deciding vote.

“Teachers union is strong. CSBA is strong,” Salazar said after the vote.

Salazar was joined in supporting the resolution by trustee Mo Muir. All board members except Salazar said they wrestled with their positions on the matter.

The district’s leaders are responsible for providing a safe, healthy learning environment for students. Elected school board members oversee the district and help make and enact policies that benefit student health and academic achievement.

Advancing simple strategies that clearly benefit children, like this one, would improve academic success, safety, health and overall well-being of students.

School board members deserve respect for struggling with the issue. They clearly weighed the benefits and drawbacks carefully.

But it was disappointing that the resolution was voted down, when the district had a chance to shine and set an example for other districts to follow.

If trustees believe the evidence is solid, which they say they do, they don’t need a mandate from the state to implement good policy. They could still make it happen.

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

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