Sunday, January 29, 2012

What time should high school start?

When I came to Rio Americano High School in 1986, school started at 8:10am. That's when "2nd period" started. First period was for a few early-risers and bus-riders. At some point, 1st period became zero period so that first period was when the day began for most of the school.

Transportation (bussing) then required that we move the start time to 8:00am. State/district requirements for teaching minutes then moved the start of the school day to 7:50am. Recently, the district essentially ended its transportation services. We still start school at 7:50am. But now it's out of inertial tradition rather than transportation necessity.

A group of concerned parents tried to lobby the school district to move the start of school to a later time. The district waved them off, telling them to focus their attention on our school as a pilot project, and then take it from there.

The parents gathered the current research on the topic and presented it to parents, administrators, and faculty. The research was compelling. There were positive outcomes wherever schools moved the start of school to a later time. None of the schools that delayed start times ever went back to earlier start times.

But moving the school start time required approval of the faculty per their bargaining agreement with the district.

Concerns were raised about potential impact on athletics. Concerns were raised about personal scheduling inconveniences. Many simply didn't believe the body of research. Nobody could find research that showed negative consequences to delaying the start of school. All of the concerns that were raised had been dealt with at other schools when they delayed their start times.

I compiled a resource page of pros, cons, and rebuttals.

I found the arguments in favor compelling in terms of student gains. I found the arguments against to be unrelated to student achievement. To me it was a matter of moving school to where the students were.

The proposal was to try a modified schedule for two years. The modification was to move the school schedule by 30 minutes (the minimum change recommended by the research).

The faculty rejected the proposal; a minority of 43% voted in favor of the proposal.

In informal polls, students, staff, and parents rejected the proposal by varying margins. The status quo is a powerful thing. Much more powerful than academic and medical research.

Interestingly, high-performing Gunn High School in Palo Alto recently changed their schedule to delay the start of school. It appears this was a district initiative rather than a faculty-spproved measure. The Gunn approach might be the only way to overcome school schedule inertia.

EDITED TO ADD: Right on the Left Coast is a blog authored by a conservative math teacher at my school. You can read his account, "The Furor Over Start Time."

Though not mentioned in the original post, he did admit how he voted and why in the comments: "I voted against this proposal ... because it screwed things up with my son and me. You see, he goes to a different high school, which would still be on the current schedule, and on days when I pick him up to come to our house, he already waits at least a half-hour for me at school. This new schedule would have him wait an hour."

There you have it. A few years of logistical inconvenience for one outweighs the documented health benefits of the entire student body. Amazing.


Kurt Zeppetello said...

When I first started in 2003 school began at 7:25 with a homeroom, in 2005 homeroom was removed and the starting time is 7:30 where it remains. We used to give our state mandated tests (CAPT tests) during the afternoon part of half-day. Juniors and Seniors were able to go home while the Freshman and Sophomores took the practice and 'real' tests respectively. They were switched to the morning and we have class afterward. I suggested moving them back to the afternoon especially since our results did not improve and in some cases got worse. I citing some of the same research that you mentioned in your pro-arguments. Unfortunately it fell on deaf ears, and easier scheduling seems to be the overriding factor in starting times. And that was just for a week and half of testing...

Anonymous said...

Whining because your idea lost, Dean? Did you lose by only one vote?

Dean Baird said...

I leave it to my gentle readers to decide whether or not the post amounts to "whining."

I would kindly to invite you to educate yourself as to the margin of "loss" by visiting the page linked to in the story.

The lament, such as it is, is this: A group of educated teaching professionals was presented with a plan for student improvement that is fairly easy to implement. It didn't impact instructional minutes or methodologies.

But because the voting method appeared to disenfranchise the smaller of the school's two bargaining units and inconvenienced some people's daycare arrangements, the proposal was rejected. Inertia rules even in the face of sound medical research carried out over many years.

In the meantime, districts across the country are moving high school start times back. If it is to happen where I work, it will have to be done by administrative fiat (the same way it was moved from 8:10am to 7:50am during my tenure).