School districts study giving teens later class starts

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Capital News Service
LANSING — The wake-up alarm is ringing for school start times in Michigan.
Ten Michigan school districts, including West Bloomfield, are considering moving high school starting times later due to studies on teens’ sleep habits.
Doug Willer, Hillsdale High School principal and member of the Board of Directors of the Michigan Secondary School Principals, said Hillsdale has discussed and rejected altering its schedule.
Willer cited Minnesota schools that piloted the program and had success for six months before a remission to the original problems.
“It went right back to kids coming in late and not doing well,” he said. “They just realized if they could get up an hour later, they could stay up an hour later.”
Steve Wasko, director of information services for the West Bloomfield School District, cited the same Minnesota schools and their continued success to date.
“They are a leader nationally in this type of program,” Wasko said. “They tried it and they were successful. That’s who we’re looking to.”
West Bloomfield held a meeting last year where guests from the Minnesota schools spoke to parents and school administrators on the topic. The district is still dealing with issues such as athletic schedules, student employment and busing, but hopes to make a final decision in a month or so, Wasko said.
“We’re leaning toward ‘yes,’ but there is still room for discussion,” Wasko said.
Other Michigan schools have looked at the facts, but believe the concerns outweigh the benefits.
“Research has indicated that changing starting times could improve academic achievement,” said Mike O’Hara, St. Joseph High School principal. “We always want to look at research but, if you move starting times back, you just get those kids home later and later from school events.”
Willer contends this system only works in a “perfect world.”
“Students would be more alert and focused, it would reduce tardies and absenteeism — I’m receptive to all that,” Willer said. “But my gut instinct tells me it probably wouldn’t fall into place.”
At a September 1999 workshop, the Forum on Adolescence of the Board on Children, Youth and Families reported that adolescents are developmentally vulnerable to sleep difficulties and the majority are barely awake for their average 7:30 a.m. starting times.
“High-schoolers have to wake up unusually early,” Wasko said. “Most businesses and shops don’t even open by the time they’re in class.”
No legislation has been introduced about the issue and Rep. Ron Jelinek, R-Three Oaks, a former teacher, believes it should stay that way.
“That’s part of the local school district’s decision,” Jelinek said. “Today, any school district can choose, and that’s the way it should be. Our role here in government is to say, ‘Here is the information that we have, now you decide what to do with it.'”
The Michigan Education Association believes the Legislature needs to make up its mind whether to mandate school schedules or not.
“We recognize that local districts should make decisions that are good for them,” said Margaret Trimer-Harley, MEA director of communications. “But in saying schools have to start school after Labor Day or can’t have school the Friday before Labor Day weekend, the state is regulating school schedules. They’re creating mandates that make it cumbersome to have freedom to change starting times around.”
The MEA has not taken an official stance on the issue, but is making sure its 54 members across the state have all the research available to make an informed decision, said Trimer-Hartley.
“It is extremely good for some kids and it’s good for all kids,” she said. “Some kids just thrive with the extra sleep and all kids benefit.”
An issue West Bloomfield is dealing with now is changing its three-tier busing system to a two-tier system. Currently, buses pick up high school students, then middle school students, and finally elementary school students. For the two-tier system, there will only be two routes, but age groups will not be mixed together on buses.
“We will be saving a small amount of funding by cutting back on buses, which wasn’t our original purpose,” Wasko said. “But, in the current economic system, that’s a positive.”
Bill Milnes, Quincy High School principal, said Quincy has not considered altering its schedule, but sees the benefits and concerns.
“It’s a tough call,” Milnes said. “One main problem would be sporting events, but our priority as a school is what goes on in the classroom. If it’s beneficial to students’ learning, that’s great.”
One concern of Dowagiac Union High School Principal Ken Dockerty is younger children waiting for the bus in the dark if elementary school times were moved earlier to accommodate high school starting times.
“Younger kids going to school in the darker hours definitely helps determine where I stand on the issue,” Dockerty said.
West Bloomfield will move its two middle schools’ starting times earlier eight and 20 minutes respectively on the proposed schedule and the elementary schools’ starting times will remain unchanged.
According to Bob Irvin, Berrien Springs High School principal, his school has actually moved its starting time earlier recently to accommodate to a new block scheduling system.
The other nine Michigan school districts contemplating moving start times back are Clarenceville, Farmington, Huron Valley, Livonia, Northville, Novi, Plymouth Canton, South Lyon and Walled Lake.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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