High school students in Montgomery County Public Schools may be one step closer to getting more time to sleep before they wake up for school.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr announced Tuesday his recommendation to move the start time for the school system’s high schools back 50 minutes, from 7:25 a.m. to 8:15 a.m.
Starr is also recommending adding 30 minutes to the elementary school day to match the length of the high school and middle school days, and moving middle schools’ start time 10 minutes earlier to 7:45 a.m.
Start and end times would not change until the 2015-16 school year at the earliest, Starr said.
Starr said at a press conference Tuesday that the school system will study the feasibility and practicality of his recommendation, partially through engaging students, families, staff and the community and partially through estimating costs.
“We’ve heard from some but not all of our community,” he said.
He said there’s “a clear link” between sleep and students’ health and well-being, an area of focus for the school system.
“Anything we can do to promote the well-being and health of our kids, we will try to do,” he said.
In a news release from the school system, Starr called sleep deprivation among adolescents “a public health and safety issue.”
After studying the issue for 10 months starting in January, the 2013 Bell Times Work Group developed a report including different options for the school system regarding start and end times. The work group — which includes parents, students, principals, department leaders and others — gathered information through meeting with experts, studying experts’ research and examining what other comparable school systems have done, among other methods.
Starr made his recommendation based on a combination of two options.
Starr said in a letter to the school board dated Oct. 8, 2013, that “data indicating that changing bell times increases student achievement is inconclusive.”
The school system will ask for feedback to the recommendation through avenues including public meetings, focus groups and surveys before a final decision is made. Starr said in the Oct. 8 letter that input from low-income families and others who would potentially be “disproportionately affected” by the changes will be an important part of the system’s outreach.
The school system will also look into what the changes would cost and how they might affect the system’s operations.
The work group’s report cites a preliminary figure of about $11.5 million as the net annual transportation cost associated with one option Starr is recommending.
A full cost analysis is expected by spring 2014, according to the release.
The recommendation to move middle school start times earlier would help the system use the same buses for several different routes, Starr said at the conference.
The county school system currently has four different start times so it can reuse buses.
Lengthening the elementary school day is “not just a logistical issue,” Starr said, but will also add more instructional time for the students that currently see the second-shortest elementary school day in the state.
Starr and members of the work group will speak on the issue at the Oct. 8 county school board meeting.
About 70 percent of high school parents who responded to a school system survey said they considered the current high school start time “too early,” according to the report. About 69 percent of those parents said they wanted the start time 30 minutes or one hour later in the morning.
Looking at a school system survey of high school students, the report says that students get an average of about 7 hours or less of sleep each night, compared to the nine hours that experts cited in the report recommend.
“Important brain functions that are part of the learning process—the ability to complete abstract and complex tasks, develop working memory, and consolidate memories of information gathered during the day — are affected negatively by sleep deprivation,” the report said.
The work group’s report also says sleep deprivation is associated with obesity, psychological problems and traffic accidents.
One study of 18 Minnesota school districts that the work group reviewed said “less affluent” families were more likely to be affected by school start time changes in areas such as transportation and childcare. These families also often needed to change jobs.
The report continues that, based on a spring 2013 school system survey, some students said they thought that, if school started later, it might be harder for them to get a job and participate in after-school activities and athletics.
John Matthews, the work group’s project manager, said that, in addition to forming school start time options, the group also recommended the school system incorporate “sleep education” into its curriculum.
Mandi Mader — a work group member, a psychotherapist and a parent advocate for later start times — said she thinks the recommended delay of the high school start time would make “a huge difference.”
“It gets the high school kids that precious 50 minutes,” she said.