Schools not putting start time issue to bed yet

Posted at 7:00 AM, Apr 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-09 07:00:18-04

OXFORD, Ohio — Talawanda school board members recently decided not to make the switch to later school start times, but the discussion isn’t over yet in the district.

The board’s decision came about a year-and-a-half after the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement recommending middle and high schools move start times to 8:30 a.m. or later. 

“There is data that supports that a later start time can have an impact on a student,” said Talawanda Board of Education President Mark Butterfield.

School starts at 7:15 a.m. for Talawanda High School students, while middle schoolers begin the day at 7:30 a.m.

In light of the AAP statement, Talawanda Superintendent Kelly Spivey tasked the district’s Health Coordinating Council with researching the subject. 

The council is composed of faculty, staff and community members who promote the relationship between health and academic achievement. Members assess health needs, review data, research and make decisions and recommendations regarding health-related issues in the district.

From August 2014 until November 2015, council members researched sleep deprivation and the public health benefits of increasing adolescent sleep. The group presented its findings to the school board in November and advised pushing back start times to help students get the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep recommended by the AAP and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We did make a recommendation that the middle school and high school look at moving their start times back for health and safety reasons,” said Amy Macechko, health and wellness coordinator for Talawanda School District.
Getting more sleep can help improve students’ memories and attention, decrease the number of car crashes and reduce anxiety, depression and substance abuse risk, she said.

Health council members weren’t the only ones pushing for a change. The topic gained the interest of students in the district, as well, some of whom did school news reports and other projects on the subject.

Khatarina Morgan, a junior at Talawanda High School, wrote a persuasive essay for an English class, encouraging the school’s principal to support a later start time.

“When I wrote the letter I knew they were debating about it, so I hoped my letter could influence them,” she said.

With a full schedule of school, work and extracurricular activities, the high school’s start time doesn’t always allow her to get the amount of rest she knows she should.

“I have a job, and I’m also a cheerleader at the high school, and being in honors courses sometimes I don’t have time to study (and get enough sleep),” she said.

The health council’s research indicates that junior high and high school age students’ internal clocks don’t turn off until after midnight, said Holli Morrish, communications and public relations director for the district.

“In our presentation, we recommended moving school start times back by 45 minutes; however, we did say that we would be appreciative of any change in that matter,” Macechko said.

Despite council members’ willingness to accept a small change, the adjustment would need to be significant to have the desired impact, Butterfield said.

“In order to really achieve the benefits … it needs to be a significant change,” he said.

After considering the cost and the potential impact on elementary students and extracurricular activities, board members determined that the drawbacks outweighed the benefits of the change.

Estimates from transportation company Petermann indicated that to implement the change, the district would need one or two additional bus routes, which would cost $50,000 to $100,000 per year, Butterfield said.

“Cost is relative to transportation,” he said.

While Morgan hoped board members would vote in favor of changing school start times, she’s “not that upset” that they decided not to.

“It is their decision and what they think is best for the school district is what they choose,” she said.

Still, she hopes they’ll revisit the topic in the future.

Finding a strategy to accommodate all students’ schedules while keeping costs down is the biggest challenge, Morrish said.

A press release on the district’s website states that the board “is willing to discuss putting an operating levy on the ballot, at a future date, that would cover the transportation costs of a later start time.”

While Butterfield said he would not support such an operating levy, he said he thinks board members should revisit the matter of start times in the future.

“The board’s more than open to look at it, and I think that it needs to be looked at in the future again,” he said.