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Start times to be sizzling board topic

A vocal crowd is expected tonight at a School Board meeting on bus schedules and altering the school day.

Published May 27, 2003

The Pinellas School Board will contend with two competing forces when it meets tonight for a highly charged public hearing about altering the day for thousands of high school students.

On one side is a body of research that says most high school students perform better and live healthier when they sleep longer. Under one of the scheduling schemes board members will consider, Pinellas high schools would start at 9:55 a.m. after years of starting at 7:20 a.m.

But a number of practical considerations collide with the idea: Sports practices would have to be moved to the morning. Students would have less time for after-school jobs. The district, already stressed by the choice plan, would have to deal with yet another dramatic change on short notice.

And elementary schools would have to fill the early part of the bus schedule now occupied by high schools.

That means some 5- to 10-year-old children could be waiting before dawn for buses.

Another alternative, which would keep starting times as they are now at all but a handful of schools, appears to have the support of a 4-3 majority. But nothing is final.

The issues will be discussed in the larger context of the first-ever busing schedule for the choice plan.

The schedule is more complicated because an estimated 13,000 additional students will need a bus ride next year, the result of families choosing schools far from their neighborhoods.

But choice alone is not driving the starting time debate. School Board member Jane Gallucci says parents have been lobbying her for years to start high schools later.

Gallucci and other board members cite research that says adolescents need the same amount of sleep as young children but typically can't fall asleep until 11 p.m. or later.

The phenomenon works against teen students who must rise before dawn to be at high school on time.

Groggy teens are a common sight in many first-period classes, and researchers note that sleep deprivation can encourage depression and nodding off behind the wheel of a car.

In the mid 1990s, prompted by a letter from the Minnesota Medical Association, a handful of school districts in that state instituted later starting times for high schools.

The Unversity of Minnesota, which monitored the trend, initially reported that teens were more alert in class, got higher grades and were less depressed.

Its later studies, however, were less conclusive.

The university surveyed hundreds of middle and high school students that had later starting times and compared their responses to students with earlier classes.

While the late starters reported less difficulty staying awake, many of their teachers were not convinced.

Though 57 percent agreed that students were more alert early in the day, 27 percent disagreed and 16 percent had no opinion. Only half said that fewer students slept at their desks.

Some teachers also reported that a significant number of student-athletes needed to be excused from the last hour of class to make it to a school-sponsored sporting event.

The study concluded there were "clear positives" to making high school starting times later.

But the following year, the same researchers said the effects were "only beginning to emerge" and no hard conclusions could be reached "for years to come."

For Gallucci, the research from Minnesota and other districts shows it is time for Pinellas to consider moving high school starting times later.

She frequently notes that the School Board's stated mission is to "assure that each student achieves at her or his highest level."

For that reason, she has not been swayed by pragmatic concerns about after-school jobs and morning sports practices.

She asks what's better for the students: "Sports and jobs or highest student achievement?"

Fellow board members Linda Lerner and Mary Russell have generally agreed with her.

Board members Carol Cook and Nancy Bostock have said they like the idea of later high school starting times, but with much more advance notice.

Springing the idea on the district now would lead to chaos, they say.

Board members Lee Benjamin and Mary Brown lean more toward the notion that early starting times prepare high school students for the working world.

Brown, in fact, has supported one scheme that calls for high schools to start class at 7:05 a.m.

"As a former high school principal, it would not be a good idea," Benjamin said.

"It's just obvious to me this late in the game that to create a whole new upset among parents and students is not a good idea. . . . They're all in shock. They can't believe it's being considered."

The crush of e-mails and calls, most of it opposed to the change, is a signal to board members that the crowd at tonight's public hearing will be large.

Besides public input, board members will discuss the bus schedule in detail.

Gallucci and Lerner, for example, don't like it that the later high school times are coupled with predawn pickup times for elementary kids. They plan to ask the district's transportation planners to tweak the plan.

On that point, they are sure to run into resistance from administrators who have spent weeks devising the schedule and are faced with a July 1 deadline to fix the routes.

"This'll be a lively, lively discussion," Gallucci said.

If you go

The Pinellas School Board will meet at 6:30 tonight to discuss the bus schedule and school starting times for next year. The public will have an opportunity to speak. The meeting will take place in the auditorium on the second floor of the school administration building, 301 Fourth St. SW in Largo.

[Last modified May 27, 2003, 01:15:28]

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