Manatee County School Board to discuss earlier start time for high school students

BRADENTON -- High school start time is up for debate in Manatee County, as the school board is set to debate starting high school 15 minutes earlier -- at 7:30 a.m. -- to allow schools to adopt seven-period scheduling, rather than block scheduling.

The idea -- up for board discussion on Tuesday -- goes against increasing research that suggests school for teens shouldn't start earlier than 8:30 a.m., based on teenagers' sleep patterns. Although the issue hasn't yet gone before the board, a few community members voiced their concerns about the idea at the last school board

meeting, citing the research and safety of teens driving or waiting for buses in the dark mornings.

Even more community members have voiced their concerns online in response to a message sent out by school board member Charlie Kennedy, a former high school teacher.

"With what happened with the calendar discussion, I figured, let me just throw this out there," Kennedy said about his online posting.

After the board tentatively approved an early August start date for the 2015-16 academic year, they heard from more than 700 community members who opposed it. The board then approved a final calendar with a start date of Aug. 24.

On the start-time issue, the overwhelming majority of the responses Kennedy received on two social media sites oppose starting high school earlier in the morning.

In support of a later start time

As of August 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends both middle and high schools start the school day at 8:30 a.m. or later.

According to the academy, an estimated 40 percent of high schools in the country start time before 8 a.m.; 15 percent start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8 a.m., and more than 20 percent of middle schools start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier, according to the academy.

"Studies have shown that delaying school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn," pediatrician Judith Owens, lead author of the policy statement, wrote last year.

Research from the National Sleep Foundation advocate for school days to start later, to help students maximize their learning capability. The foundation is a not-for-profit organization located in Washington, DC. Its membership includes researchers and clinicians focused on sleep medicine, health professionals, patients, families affected by drowsy driving and more than 900 health care facilities, according to its site.

"Even without the pressure of biological changes, if we combine an early school starting time -- say 7:30 a.m., which, with a modest commute, makes 6:15 a.m. a viable rising time -- with our knowledge that optimal sleep need is 91/4 hours, we are asking that 16-year-olds go to bed at 9 p.m. Rare is a teenager that will keep such a schedule," said Mary Carskadon, director of E.P. Bradley Hospital Research Laboratory and professor in Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University School of Medicine, who studied the issue in 1998.

Scheduling issues

Even the institutes proposing later start times recognize it can be difficult for district to make the change, often citing transportation and after-school activities.

In Superintendent Rick Mills' explanation of the additional 15-minute proposal, he wrote that officials looked at adding the 15 minutes onto the end of the school day, but that conflicted with release times for the elementary and middle schools. The additional 15 minutes in the morning works with the district's transportation and food services departments, and it allows schools to transition out of block scheduling and into traditional seven-period scheduling. Each high school in the county is allowed to elect either the block or traditional schedule, or some hybrid model, but all the schools will start and end at the same time.

The additional 15 minutes for the start time is necessary to allow students to transition between classes.

Mills proposed the 7:30 a.m. start time and sent out a letter earlier this month asking parents to send feedback to their respective principals.

The additional 15 minutes would help support student achievement in the high school.

"Our district leadership team and our high school principals feel it is necessary to support our high schools collectively in our mission to increase academic achievement," Mills wrote in a letter addressed to parents.

The seven-period day means students have each class every day and students attend the same class at the same time every day.

Cynthia Saunders, the district's executive director for secondary schools, said the proposed seven-period day allows teachers to "see your kids more frequently."

If an earlier start time is adopted, Palmetto High School will go to the seven-period day model. Bayshore High and Southeast High plan to incorporate a hybrid schedule with block scheduling Monday through Thursday and a seven-period day on Friday. Braden River, Lakewood Ranch and Manatee will continue with their current block scheduling.

Schools may take the 2015-16 year to see how the different models work then implement changes for the following year, Saunders said.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.