Petition seeks later start time for Montgomery high schools -- Gazette.Net


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An online petition calling for a later start time for Montgomery County high school students has collected more than 5,000 signatures in 12 days, but some say the logistics of such a change are too hard to work out.

Mandi Mader, a parent of two students in Montgomery County Public Schools and a clinical social worker, thinks it is worth a shot — the last time the school system studied the issue was in 1998.

County high schools now start at 7:25 a.m. The petition, on signon.org, asks that the schools start at 8:15 a.m. or later.

“More and more, people are becoming familiar with the research that overwhelmingly talks about how horrible it is for our child’s mental health [to start school that early],” said Mader, of Garrett Park.

The petition cites information from startschoollater.net, a national coalition that advocates for later school start times.

“When teens get the required 8.5 to 9 hours of sleep: school attendance goes up, tardiness decreases, they sleep less in class; they get in fewer traffic accidents; students visit nurses and counselors less often; and students report less depression and irritability,” the petition reads.

Mader said she is meeting with a group of the petitioners Tuesday to decide when to submit the petition to the school board.

Mary Press of Silver Spring said she signed the petition on Monday because her 14-year-old son, a freshman at Albert Einstein High, is tired of waking up so early for school.

He wakes up at 6 a.m. and is on the bus by 6:25 a.m., then has football practice after school until 5:30 or 6 p.m. On game days, he’s not home until 8:30 p.m.

“Every morning he says, ‘Why do I have to get up so early?’” Press said. “He is tired when he leaves for school.”

Mader said she started the petition after she brought the idea up on a listserv for Walter Johnson High School, where her son attends school, and the listserv “blew up” in excitement.

The school system in Fairfax County is looking into the possibility, and Arlington County Public Schools switched its start times around in 2001.

But there are a “myriad of issues” when it comes to making this change, such as transportation, child care, after-school jobs and activities, athletics, and others, schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.

In 1998, the school board wanted to make the change but couldn’t make it work, said state Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Dist. 39), who was president of the board at the time.

After a work group was put together and public meetings were held, King said the sticking point was bus transportation — the school system did not have enough buses to transport two levels of students at once, and switching elementary schools to start earlier in the morning posed problems.

The school system uses 1,264 buses that transport about 100,000 of the total 149,000 students to and from school — staggered pick-up and start times for elementary, middle and high schools allow for the same fleet of buses to transport students of all levels.

“What we found was that in order to make the bell time change, we would have to purchase a whole lot of buses — either that or we would be putting elementary kids out in the dark at 6:30 in the morning,” King said.

King believes the school board would find the same challenge if trying to make the change now, with a tight budget and the high costs of buying buses.

The school board will consider a proposal or petition if it is presented with one, Tofig said.

When a parent asked school board candidates about the proposal at a forum Oct. 17, all candidates — including two current board members — said it sounded like a good idea and they were committed to looking into it.

Board member Michael A. Durso (Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said he thinks it is worth looking into, although he is doubtful that the board will make a change.

He has worked in three school systems and has heard this issue come up every few years.

“You have all kinds of issues intertwined with day care and extra care and, especially with high school kids, with athletics and jobs and internships. It is a tough one-size-fits-all proposition,” he said.

All schools started around 9 a.m. when Durso attended school in Washington, D.C., and when he later worked there, Durso said he did not see a difference in attendance, tardiness, behavior or academic success.

He was a principal in Arlington, Va. in 1996 when the school system studied the proposition.

The school system eventually decided to push back start time for high school by 45 minutes and push forward middle school start time by 20 minutes. High school students have benefited, and there has been just a slight effect on middle school students, according to a study the school system released in 2005.

The grade point average of two classes of high school students, the class of 2003 and 2004, rose by about a tenth of a point, to 2.54 and 2.68, respectively, the study reported. Middle school students’ GPAs remained about the same.

The percent of students in first period who felt ready to start school all or most of the time increased 19 percentage points to 91 percent in high school and fell 11 points to 75 percent in middle school. Student participation in first period rose 14 percentage points to 60 percent in high school and fell 4 percent to 77 percent in middle school, according to teachers and students who responded to the report.

Press said her son thinks even another half-hour in the morning would help, to sleep or eat a breakfast that he sometimes doesn’t have time for now.

Mader said she realizes there will be issues in implementing the change, but it needs to happen.

“Parents are sick and tired of seeing their kids be sick and tired,” she said.

jbondeson@gazette.net