The local chapter of a national advocacy group promoting later school start times says Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr’s recommendation to delay high school start times by 20 minutes is a “sham.”
Members from the Montgomery County chapter of Start School Later issued a press release Tuesday saying that the recommendation released in a memo by Starr “understates the significant academic, health, and emotional benefits of later start times for teens.”
“When Dr. Starr claims that we can’t afford to spend $4 to $5 million more on buses (out of a multi-billion dollar budget), he’s ignoring the incredible return on investment that healthy bell times provide,” the group’s statement said.
Michael Rubinstein, a volunteer for the group, said he was first exposed to the issue while his son was a student at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring.
“My son graduated last year, but for four years I was basically struggling to get him out of bed to get to school,” Rubinstein said. “He would have to leave the house to catch the bus at 6:30 a.m., so instead I ended up driving him to school for much of those four years. I was happy to do that because it meant he could get an extra 45 minutes of sleep every morning and he really needed that sleep.”
Every morning, Rubinstein said he would see a long line of parents also dropping off their kids.
“I feel so strongly about this issue that I’m still involved,” Rubinstein added. “It’s too late to help [my son], but it’s not too late to help the thousands of sleep-deprived teenagers across Montgomery County.”
In his memo, Starr wrote that due to next year’s bleak budget outlook he’s recommending that the Montgomery Board of Education consider no-cost options for starting school later. The most practical option, according to Starr, would be for all schools to start 20 minutes later. This would mean high schools would start at 7:45 a.m., middle schools at 8:15 a.m., and elementary schools at 9:10 and 9:35 a.m.
Starr’s memo also offered other options, including starting all schools 35 minutes later; starting elementary schools first—a proposal that could cost between $2.6 million and $5.2 million per year, but would enable high schools to start between 8:45 a.m. and 9:10 a.m.—and not changing bell times at all. Additional options include splitting the high school day and allowing some students to start at 9:05 a.m. and others at 7:25 a.m., and reworking an original $21 million recommendation to make it less expensive.
Rubinstein said the options that would cost between $4 million and $5 million to shift high school and middle school start times later than 8:30 a.m. are “good options.” But to simply shift start times for all schools 20 minutes later “will have little or no effect,” he said.
The Start School Later group is advocating for middle and high schools to start later than 8:30 a.m., which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In August, the academy issued a statement that said 8:30 a.m. start times “align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents.”
“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” said Dr. Judith Owens, a pediatrician with the academy who worked on the school start times study, in a statement.
MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig said that Starr has been consistent in saying he would like to start high schools later, but that the costs of doing so must be weighed against the district’s other needs.
“The bottom line is there’s no money in the budget right now for later start times,” Tofig said.
Despite that reality, Tofig noted that Starr did present the school board with options that would affect the budget and that the school board will ultimately make a decision about start times. He said the Start School Later group is misrepresenting what Starr is recommending because the superintendent presented a range of options in addition to the proposed 20-minute shift. Tofig added that not everyone is in favor of changing school start times.
“The board wants to hear from the public,” Tofig said.
Starr is scheduled to present his recommendations to the school board Jan. 13. Afternoon and evening public hearings on the issue are scheduled for Jan. 22.
The following options were put forth by MCPS and are being considered by the Montgomery County Board of Education: