Academics should guide decision

Will helping high schoolers hurt younger students?

By The Mercury

It sounds as if a couple members of the Manhattan-Ogden Board of Education have their minds made up about whether to swap the daily start times of Manhattan High School and the district’s elementary schools. Others sound open-minded. We hope board members’ minds are not so firmly set that they pay only polite attention to patrons’ views at the public comment session on the proposal Sept. 19.

Several board members’ comments in a story Sunday on the potential change highlight the variety of issues involved. Among them was board President Dave Colburn’s observation that the early start time of Manhattan Catholic Schools hasn’t seemed to have had a detrimental effect on elementary school children. Said Mr. Colburn: “They seem to be surviving.”

We don’t doubt that if the board makes the change, students at all levels would survive. Expecting young students to wait at bus stops on cold, dark mornings isn’t ideal, but it needn’t be perilous.

This entire discussion would likely be moot were it not for a series of sleep studies indicating that high school students perform better academically and have better attendance when school starts later in the day. We suspect many parents of teenagers could offer anecdotal evidence about how late the latter stay up on school nights and about the struggles in getting them moving in the morning. Manhattan High School now begins at 7:40 a.m.; elementary schools generally start about an hour later.

Board member Walt Pesaresi, an advocate of the schedule change, is right to focus on its impact on students’ academics, not athletics. Even so, the change, while perhaps enabling high school students to get more sleep, comes with academic concerns. Students who participate in athletics or other activities and who already leave school early for competitions at other schools would likely miss even more afternoon class time in a day that begins and ends later than it does now.

If the board does make the change, board member Darell Edie’s suggestion of a two-year trial run before making a permanent decision is a good one. Sometimes, ideas that sound good simply don’t work out, and policies that are effective in some districts might be disastrous in others.

One element whose impact should be secondary is transportation. Obviously, the school bus schedule and transportation costs are important, but they should serve the district’s goal of educating students, not determine when school starts.

Board members and families with school-age children certainly have plenty to think about. A pretty good case can be made both for maintaining and changing the status quo. We look forward to an instructive and lively comment session.

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