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Seattle School District Grapples With Plans for Major Schedule Change

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Tweaking a school schedule is never easy.

As more districts adjust their start times to reflect research showing teens need more sleep, administrators are getting a lesson in the potential pitfalls.

Seattle Public Schools is grappling with these issues now.

Last November, the Seattle school board voted to modify school schedules. All public high schools and most middle schools will start at 8:45 a.m. next school year, while most elementary schools will start at 7:55 a.m.

Big Change

"This is a huge public policy change," said Pegi McEvoy, the district's assistant superintendent for operations. "It's impacting everybody's life. There's nothing more personal to a family as when you drop off your kid and pick up your child."

Seattle is not alone in this. This school year Virginia's  Fairfax County Public Schools began starting class later. The Germantown Municipal School District in Tennessee will go to later start times for middle and high school students next school year. And, the Orange County (Fla.) School Board is considering pushing back the start time for its high school students.

These changes stem from a recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that middle and high schools delay the start of school until 8:30 a.m. or later to align with the natural sleep rhythms of adolescents.

The Seattle district has formed a task force of about 30 people to study the implementation of later start times for these students.

The Bell Time Implementation Task Force met for the first time Thursday. McEvoy is serving as the chair of the group, which includes district staff, parents, and sleep specialists, as well as representatives from local community-based organizations, law enforcement, and public transportation.

Challenges

McEvoy said the group will be looking at several issues related to the schedule change. For example, she said, with elementary students getting out of school much earlier there will be a greater need for after-school programs.

"If kids are getting out about 2:30 for elementary, and if parents don't get home or out of work until 5:30, how do we extend that care?" she asked.

For older students, she said, coordinating time for athletics will be the main sticking point.

"Some of the challenges that we're seeing is, for instance, all of our fields aren't lit," said McEvoy. "So how do we manage practice as well as games?"

The task force is set to meet five times this year to come up with answers to these questions and provide suggestions to the district.

"It's absolutely critical that we have these thoughtful conversations to help the community think through how do we mitigate any unintended consequences that might arise from the changes," said McEvoy.

 Washington lawmakers are paying attention. A state Senate committee has passed a bill known as the Sandman Act. It calls for a study to be conducted on student achievement at schools with later start times.


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