The last time I wrote about school start times, I began by saying, “I can’t believe I’m writing about this again.” And here I am doing it yet again.
Why? Because school boards continue to resist mounting evidence supporting the need for later school start times for adolescents.
In a column back in Sept. 2014, I praised the San Dieguito Union High School District for working toward flexible start times that gave students and families choices on what time to start school.
That praise was premature.
SDUHSD attempted to make appropriate adjustments, but the district has failed to move start times later.
Start times at the two high school academies – Canyon Crest and San Dieguito – continue to be too early: 8 a.m. and 7:50 a.m. respectively.
The two so-called boundary high schools, La Costa Canyon and Torrey Pines – have both made changes to their bell schedules this year. But neither addressed the need for later start times as a primary objective.
LCC and TP continue to have a 7:40 a.m. start time – well earlier than the recommended 8:30 or 9 a.m.
Mike Grove, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of instructional services, said about the start times at all four of the district’s comprehensive high schools, “Regular start and dismissal times did not change.”
To be fair, San Dieguito did try.
SDUHSD decided that flexible start times and new bell schedules at LCC and TP were the answer. This allowed the district to maintain the same time for dismissal, which avoided the thorny issue of interfering with after-school sports schedules.
Flex start means students can take fewer classes and start the day later.
Except it isn’t working out that way.
Beginning this fall, the new schedules at TP and LCC allow students to take seven classes per year instead of six.
This was done to compete with the eight classes per year (four per term) the two academies offer, which the district says is a major draw for CCA and SDA.
Grove said the ability to take more than six classes per year was shown in district surveys to be the main reason why students prefer the academies over the two boundary schools.
He said the district wasn’t going to solve some of the enrollment issues and lessen the demand to attend the academies until LCC and TP found a way to let kids take more than six classes a year.
But if LCC and TP students want to take more than six classes, their start time remains at 7:40 a.m., just as before. And kids, it turns out, unsurprisingly, want to do just that.
Instead of benefiting from a later start time by taking fewer classes, many students are taking a full load of classes.
Even if they choose to take just six classes, they are still starting school early every other day since the schedules alternate days.
So students can either take one less class and have a later start time every other day, or take seven classes and start early every day.
The seventh class
To offer that seventh class, there’s no way to describe in words how complicated LCC’s bell schedule now is. You have to see it visually to get a sense of it.
Go to the La Costa Canyon website and scroll down to the 2016-2017 Bell Schedule Information box --
“No one’s going to say that it’s simple to understand,” Grove said. “It’s obviously more complicated.”
At LCC, he said they recognize “that it takes some explanation.”
The new schedule was discussed at length at Readiness Days, and the school even developed a phone app that tells students what that day’s schedule is.
For example, the schedule has a “brunch” passing period (brunch, Grove said, is just a longer period between classes) that ends at 9:19 a.m. on Week A Monday, ends at 9:18 a.m. on Week A Tuesday, ends at 9:10 a.m. on Week B Monday, and ends at 9:50 a.m. on Week B Tuesday.
There’s a different lunch time each day, and every other Monday is early dismissal, to allow for teacher collaboration at the end of the school day.
[As an aside, why didn’t they put the teacher collaboration time at the beginning of the school day so kids could sleep in?]
Grove said the school had three goals when they designed this confusing schedule: provide collaboration time for teachers, allow students the option to take up to seven classes per year, and offer an Extended Study Period.
Note that not one of the goals was to provide a later school start time.
The ESP is scheduled three times each day on Wed. and Thursday of Week A, three times a day on Tuesday and Wed. of Week B, and once a day on Friday of Week A and Monday of Week B.
If anyone wanted to make it more complicated, they couldn’t have.
Grove said the LCC staff did not want to copy Torrey Pines’ new bell schedule which also allows students to take seven classes but has a Period 3 class every day that’s half the length of time as the other classes.
At TPHS, students will alternate days for their classes: Periods 1, 3, 5, and 7 on one day, and Periods 2, 3, 4, and 6 on alternating days.
As at LCC, TP students can opt to take fewer than seven classes.
Period 3 is 55 minutes daily, while the other classes are 100 minutes every other day.
Because it’s less than an hour long, Grove said it was important to try not to schedule P.E. classes or science classes with wet labs during Period 3.
Although this schedule is easier to follow, word is that having Period 3 daily, combined with an unanticipated 100 more students at all grade levels, has caused serious scheduling challenges.
Grove said Torrey Pines had to add 17 more classes to accommodate the unexpectedly higher enrollment.
“They need more classes across the schedule, but it’s particularly tight in Period 3,” he said.
In addition, the school anticipated about 40 percent of students wanting seven classes instead of six, but that number turned out to be 45 percent.
With a total enrollment of 2,600 students, that extra 5 percent amounts to 130 kids.
“We have to make room for them,” Grove said, noting that lines in the counseling office were long the first few days of school.
TPHS enrollment is traditionally “the hardest school to predict,” Grove said, calling the population “more dynamic.”
Grove admitted that regular start and end times at all four high schools did not change, but added that the new schedules did give kids more flexibility.
Dismissal times at both boundary schools (TP and LCC) are the same as previous years: 2:35 p.m. Dismissal is at 3 p.m. at CCA and 3:10 p.m. at SDA.
Altering dismissal times by moving everything forward one hour would have met with resistance, Grove said, citing not just athletics conflicts but also transportation issues and a change in the work day for employees.
“It would have had to be a negotiation process [with the teachers union] to move everything forward one hour,” he said, although he noted that there are teachers on both sides of the issue, some wanting later start and end times and others not.
These bell schedules were all approved without discussion at the Sept. 1 school board meeting.
Slow to learn
Last spring, former SDUHSD superintendent Rick Schmitt sent me a link to a New York Times story headlined, “Schools are slow to learn that sleep deprivation hits teenagers hardest.”
He urged me to tout how the district has heeded the call for later start times, writing, “This year 2/4 high schools have flex start, [and] next year with the new bell schedules at LCC and TP all of our high school kids will be able to flex start.”
After reading the headline, I responded, “San Dieguito was indeed slow to learn. Your district ignored the data, disregarded the science, and dismissed the evidence – for decades. … Maintaining early start times and appeasing the special interests became more important than listening to science.”
After-school sports schedules remain sacred. Sports programs dictate the timing of the school day and, it would seem, still trump academics.
Research shows that students at schools that start at 8:30 or 9 a.m. are more alert and attentive, perform better academically, test better, have more positive attitudes, are happier, have fewer delinquency and behavioral problems, have decreased rates of illness and tardies, and are less likely to engage in risky behavior after school since school ends later in the afternoon.
Approving later start times for adolescents is the easiest decision school boards can make if they are serious about improving student achievement, health and quality of life. It’s a simple change that puts student health and academic interests first.
This has been confirmed by the American Academy of Pediatricians which formally recommended delaying school start times.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes insufficient sleep in adolescents as an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students,” reads a 2014 AAP study.
The AAP reported that moving start times later “will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.”
Said Terra Ziporyn Snider, executive director and co-founder of Start School Later (www.startschoollater.net), “Moving school start times is no guarantee that most teenagers will get the sleep they need. But not moving school start times is a guarantee that most won’t.”
Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.