Wednesday, April 21, 2021

High school starts too early in Bloomington-Normal


McLean County Unit District 5 in Normal, Illinois, might change the start times for its two high schools from the current 7:15 AM to 8:30, the Bloomington Pantagraph reports. Elementary schools would start earlier.

This is a tough call for any school district, especially since families have grown accustomed to current school start and dismissal times.

Getting kids ready for and off to school sometimes requires parents or siblings to handle the logistics. And babysitting arrangements need to be made for when young children come home from school in the afternoon before their parents get home from work.

But the research is undisputed. Teens and tweens will get more sleep—and better sleep—if school starts just a little later than 7-something. The research has been on the published scientific record for several decades, and it stands to this day.

On top of that, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommended that high school students start class no earlier than 8:30 AM. That’s about the time Unit 5 schools are considering for high school.

The thing is, it takes more than good research about the benefits of sleep—which include improved concentration and paying attention in morning classes, better retention of material learned at school, and even safety improvements for students who drive to high school—to move the hands of change this significantly. It takes more than pediatricians sending out official recommendations.

Some school districts across the country have argued that changing start times would increase transportation expenses. This argument has never held water in my mind. How can it cost more to bus the same number of kids in the same number of buses at 8:30 than it does at 7:30?

But wait. Unit 5 says consolidating bus schedules with a change in start times would actually save money: about $1.3 million in transportation costs. So a common argument against making high school times later doesn’t even apply here.

Some students may worry that they would have to make changes to their work schedule and might not be able to work as many hours in after-school jobs if they get out of school later or finish up after-school activities an hour later. Hearing from families that rely on the income from those students, a school board could have an especially tough decision.

Close to a hundred parents showed up at the board meeting on March 9 to express concern about any change the board might make.

“There has been a lack of objective data for parents,” the paper quoted Ed Cimoch of Bloomington, who has a daughter in kindergarten, as saying to the board. “No one disputes the data of high school students starting later, but there has been no data provided that shows a benefit from elementary students starting earlier.”

And there isn’t any data, really. There may be a benefit to younger children if they finish earlier in the afternoon, though. Teachers from Illinois to foreign countries point to anecdotal evidence that young children become restless in the afternoon. For high school students, the exact opposite is true, because their body’s circadian rhythms change at puberty.

“In the morning, my second-grade students are focused and performing to the best of their abilities,” said Michelle Kraft, who teaches at an elementary school in Unit 5. “After 2 PM, the students are wiggling in their seats and losing their focus.”

For her second graders, though, families may have to come up with some more childcare money because of the earlier dismissal time.

“We anticipate a decline in our before-school care, yet an increase in our after-school program,” the Pantagraph quoted Jyl Waller, executive director of A Shining Star Learning Center in Normal, as saying, adding that she has received calls from families inquiring about additional after-school care for their young children.

In the end, though—and the Unit 5 board is expected to vote on the change at its March 16 meeting—there are valid and convincing arguments on both sides of this debate. Each community must decide for itself what the best course of action might be.

Enter Mark Daniel, superintendent of schools in Unit 5. “We have listened to parents and teachers,” the Pantagraph quoted him as saying. “This is a very difficult thing to decide. The board is truly being stretched and put to the test.”

At the March 9 board meeting, he recommended elementary schools start at 7:45, high schools at 8:30, and junior highs at 8:45.

“We’re about maximizing student learning,” WJBC-AM quoted him as saying. “Our elementary teachers and educators [came] forward, saying, Yeah, truly, elementary students, their peak learning time is in the AM. … High school and junior high, their peak time is not at 7:15 in the morning.

“If the board does decide to go forward, then we need to start the discussion of: let’s work on childcare, let’s work on, perhaps, zero-hour for some of our students, if that’s what they’re interested in,” he said.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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