Okemos schools looking at health benefits with start times

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By Julie Angell
Meridian Times

Okemos schools might be seeing a change in the school schedule a couple years from now to enhance learning and safety.

Catherine Nash, superintendent of Okemos Public Schools, presented research at the Okemos Board of Education meeting on Oct. 13. Information came from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Hanover Research, and it showed the impact of school start times and sleep deprivation on students.

The findings, summarized by Nash, showed that elementary students do not benefit from a later school start time. It also showed that adolescents of high school age need the most sleep, and those who do not get adequate sleep have a greater chance of missing school and losing focus in class. The current start times are those that are not recommended for students.

This information was brought up at a board meeting in early September, and now board members are deciding on minor to major schedule changes. The biggest considerations are the safety of younger students walking to class in the dark and high school students not having enough time for jobs or extracurriculars.

Deputy Superintendent Patricia Trelstad said that the school calendar has been decided on for the next couple of years, so any decision on how the school year is configured will take place in 2016. The district will have to adjust their calendar in the 2016-2017 school year anyway, because state requirements will be bumping up school day requirements to 180 days instead of the current 173/175, according to Ash.

Okemos Public Schools has four start times that are each staggered, ranging from 7:45 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. Nash said she doesn’t think any are viable. Options include having one start time for all schools, switching the start times for K-6 with grades 7-12 or shift all start times 30 to 45 minutes later.

While a slight change in school schedules does affect students, parents are the ones getting headaches over it.

Trelstad said that minor schedule changes are “big” for families, and the slightest edit in a school calendar can have a negative impact on families, especially for families with children in more than one of the schools who have to drive back and forth between schools in the morning and afternoon.

In the meantime, a “seventh hour” option is being explored, Ash said, which would let students knock out graduation requirements at the end of the school day. This might not solve all of the school districts’ scheduling problems, but it will be a more flexible option for students that could be implemented sooner, according to Ash.

Looking back on her days at Okemos High School, Molly Schools said she didn’t mind the early start time. Schools graduated in spring 2014, and said she no longer has to set an alarm for Okemos High School’s 7:45 a.m. start time.

Schools participated in swimming, water polo and was a member of the National Honor Society. With a morning practice, school, homework, an additional practice and socializing with friends, she said a seventh hour wouldn’t have fit in her schedule.
A challenge with creating school schedules is making sure each student has enough time for their commitments, especially academics, Ash and Trelstad said.

“We want well-rounded students,” Ash said.

When Andy Sheufelt’s daughters attended Okemos High School, they were busy with academics, athletics and clubs. Although the students are affected by whatever decision the board members make, Sheufelt said middle and high schoolers may not see the long term effects and the big picture concerns that the board sees.

Sheufelt is also a teacher at Kinawa 5-6 School, and agrees with Ash that students should be well-rounded and have enough time for academics and extracurriculars. He said he doesn’t think his students’ eyelids will still be open past 3:30 p.m., so a late afternoon school day ending might not work. Sheufelt found that most agree with adding days onto the school year and keeping staggered school start times as is.

The Okemos Board of Education will be looking into polling parents about preferred start times.

Julie Angell

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