Sleeping in late has been a way of life for Minneapolis and Edina high school students, among others, and for the past two years, the St. Paul School District has held that the same should be true for its older students.
On Tuesday, the school board may, at last, be ready to set in motion a move toward later start times for nearly all district secondary students.
First, though, would come a little more time and study.
A proposal in the works since October calls for interim Superintendent John Thein to develop a plan for sweeping changes that align school start times with the “health and academic best interests” of students.
Research has shown that student performance rises, and absences and tardiness decline, when teens sleep longer.
“This is an opportunity that we need to take,” Board Member Steve Marchese said last week.
But the issue has been a thorny one for board members. Allowing secondary students to start their day at 8:30 a.m., instead of 7:30 a.m., could drive up busing costs by as much as $4.4 million annually, plus require that thousands of elementary kids start school earlier at 7:45 a.m. — fueling parental opposition.
To try to make it work, the board has said that no change would occur until 2018-19. To retain flexibility, and perhaps lessen the controversy, the board’s proposal also makes no specific mention of desired start time changes for middle and high school students.
It is a confusing omission to some.
Last week, as he looked over a draft of the proposal, Board Member John Brodrick said to colleagues: “This seems to be somewhat vague. ... Is we is or is we ain’t going to change start times for secondary students?”
No one offered up more specific language.
On the East Side, where Johnson High began piloting an 8:30 a.m. start in fall 2015 and is reporting success, the sentiment has been: What’s taken so long?
Thein, too, has said he is not aware of any district that has made the move to later start times and reversed course later.
Still, there is plenty of opposition and significant issues to be addressed.
Time and money
Later start times at St. Paul’s Johnson and Creative Arts schools are made possible by a partnership with Metro Transit, which provides transportation to most of those students — as well as to all high schoolers in the Minneapolis School District.
Metro Transit has said it lacks the bus storage capacity to expand its services to other St. Paul schools.
At Johnson, the hallways seem calmer, and the students better rested, said Amy Ensign, an English teacher who oversees the activities of a large group of student leaders.
Principal Micheal Thompson said that 81 percent of students surveyed said they approve of the later start. In 2015-16, the first year of 8:30 a.m. starts, the school also saw increases in the percentages of students testing as proficient in math and reading, he noted. Tardiness remains an issue, Thompson said, but it is not surprising, he added.
“It is the same kids who are late,” Thompson said. “If we went to noon, they would still be late.”
Haylee Vang, 17, a senior, was “always tired” before she could sleep longer, she said. This year, during first hour, she had a U.S. Government class, and for the first-quarter final on constitutional amendments, she made sure to get plenty of sleep. She got a “B.”
“I’m definitely more ready to go,” she said.
Shifting secondary starts to 8:30 a.m., however, would require moving many elementary kids to 7:45 a.m. starts, disrupting routines at home and creating day care challenges for many families. In addition to increased costs, the district also could find itself losing students to other districts and charter schools because it would not have any elementary options available in the 8 o’clock hour.
“We seem to be trading one problem for another,” said Paolo Provenzano, a parent who organized an online petition opposing elementary start time changes. As of Monday, 172 people signed.
Last week, Board Chairman Jon Schumacher said that it was possible the district could phase in the changes.
Kyla Wahlstrom, a University of Minnesota researcher who has studied school start times for about 20 years, in Twin Cities schools and nationally, said recently she knows the difficulties that districts can face in making such moves. She has proposed studying the issues of shifting elementary students to earlier start times.
For now, she said, research is clear that older students benefit — mentally, physically and academically — from later starts.
“Wouldn’t you do everything you could to make it work?” she said. “I think that’s what St. Paul is doing.”