WJCC School Board Debates Later Start Time for High Schools

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WJCC LogoAdjusting start times at the high school level dominated conversation at Tuesday’s meeting of the Williamsburg-James City County School Board.

Board members discussed the issue of starting high school classes later in the morning to allow teenagers more time to sleep as a non-action item, meaning no policy changes would be considered at the meeting.

WJCC Superintendent Steve Constantino cited an August study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommended middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. According to the study, the natural sleep cycle of teenagers makes it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m., while many high schools — including those in WJCC — start by 7:30 a.m.

The study suggested teenagers who chronically slept less than 8.5 hours per night faced higher risks of depression and being overweight, along with decreased performance in the classroom.

Constantino said WJCC administrators were examining the issue, but wanted input from board members as to the direction they should take.

Board member Oscar Prater said the teenagers could act on their own to address the situation, without assistance from the board.

“If they went to bed earlier, they’d get more sleep,” he said.

Several board members said later start times would likely benefit high school students, although they were unclear on how to accommodate such a delay without affecting middle and elementary schools in the district.

School Board member James Nickols said the district had considered delayed start times in the past. Without adding additional buses, Nickols said previous proposals included combining middle and high school students into one bus tier, or switching elementary and high school start times.

Neither of those plans were implemented, however. Nickols said some parents criticized putting middle and high school students on the same bus. At the same time, some critiqued the possibility of elementary school students arriving at their homes hours before an adult would be there to supervise them.

“Ultimately, it came down to how many buses we had,” Nickols said.

At roughly $100,000 per additional bus, it would cost nearly $3.2 million to accommodate delayed high school starting times with a bus schedule that minimized the effects on middle and elementary school students.

Board member Heather Cordasco agreed that changing high school start times would be a difficult task, but said she had seen the benefits of additional sleep firsthand with her teenage son.

Board member Joe Fuentes said the discussion was not limited to high school start times, but brought in a range of connected issues, including revisiting the district’s current three-tier bus schedule. Tier 1 includes the three high schools and Toano Middle, each of which begin at 7:20 a.m. Tier 2 starts classes at 8:05 a.m., and includes Hornsby and Berkeley middle schools, along with D.J. Montague, James River and Stonehouse elementary schools. Tier 3 begins at 9:20 a.m., and consists of the remaining six elementary schools.

According to Fuentes, the existing three-tier schedule led to inequities in school start times. He pointed to Toano Middle as the main example. Board President Ruth Larson said the district’s original plan was to rotate annually the early start time among the three middle schools, but studies suggested the cost of radically changing bus routes every year would be prohibitively expensive for the district. Larson said the issue of “four-by-four” scheduling at the high schools could also be included in the discussion.

Constantino said the district was open to investigating multiple issues, but said the more issues that were on the table, the longer it would take to develop a plan. Instead, Constantino said the district should gauge whether there was a regional interest in delayed start times and collaborate with other districts.

“That’s a major difference than if one school district or even two school districts are interested in it,” he said.

The York County School Division has recently considered delaying high school start times. The YCSD school board decided in December 2013 to bring the issue before the community in the spring of this year, and former Superintendent Eric Williams and a team developed a plan to send surveys to parents and students in the community, along with hosting public forums and focus groups.

York’s school board tabled the issue because of uncertainty over the division’s 2014-2015 budget and Williams’ departure for Loudoun County Schools.

WJCC schools will continue to look into the possibility of an altered start time schedule. Constantino said a team of administrators would research the issue, and the board’s input from Tuesday’s meeting would direct the efforts of the team.

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