Is it time to change school start times?

By Bryan Richardson

“Do we have any identifiable problems here at Manhattan High School that we’re addressing?”

John Thurston, a parent of three elementary children, asked that of the USD 383 Board of Education during a Sept. 19 hearing about school start times.

The board’s scheduled Oct. 10 discussion will re-visit that question with consideration of swapping the start times at elementary and secondary schools. This year as has been the case for some years, MHS starts at 7:40 a.m., middle schools start at 7:50 a.m. and elementary schools start between 8:25 and 8:40 a.m.

School officials cite various national studies indicating that later school times for teenagers improve attendance and academic performance as justification for raising the topic. Thurston’s question mirrored the comments of others: how much improvement can USD 383 achieve with this switch?

MHS is among the better-performing high schools in the state based on a number of different measures.

The Washington Post’s High School Challenge List has several times in recent years featured MHS on its list of best public schools based on data related to Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and/or Cambridge tests taken by all students.

The district’s ACT composite scores have exceeded the state average at least since the 1997-98 school year. In a 14-year time span from 1997-98 to 2010-11, MHS student’s average composite score was 22.95 compared to the state average of 21.74.

Supt. Bob Shannon said the discussions are in the spirit of whether the district could get even better results. “We should only change if there are enough reasons to believe it’ll increase the overall benefits of students,” Shannon said.

Board member Leah Fliter agreed with Shannon’s sentiment. “I certainly understand that because the community is used to what they have now,” she said. “Why can’t we talk about the possibility of making it better?”

The discussion of this and the other topics — open/closed lunch, senior early release, and the MHS and elementary schedule — started during the 2011-12 school year.

Doug Messer, now the district’s transportation director but a former board president, said he wanted to see the questions taken up because some under inactive consideration since he was elected in 2007.

The start time topic has been discussed causally by the board for a decade. An open/closed lunch discussion occurred in 2001, ending when it was determined there wasn’t enough cafeteria space to realistically do it.

“What’s the point of putting something on the future agenda items list if we’re never going to discuss it,” Messer asked.

Current board president Dave Colburn said many of these issues had been on the backburner for four or five years as the $97.5 million bond issue’s construction and renovation projects became the major focus. He said the discussions will provide an opportunity for all grade levels of USD 383 to be improved. He cited an upcoming elementary schedule discussion in January as an example.

“We’ve struggled for a long time to get the planning and collaboration time for our elementary teachers that we do for our high school teachers,” he said.

Regarding the start time discussion, Walt Pesaresi appears to be the strongest board advocate for swapping   times. “Personally, I think it’d be the best thing to happen academically,” he said earlier in the month. He added that, “we’re not going to please everybody no matter what we do.”

The board sampled public feedback during a recent public hearing, and what they heard is prompting several to consider not voting for a change.

Board vice-president Curt Herrman said he’s more in favor of maintaining the start times after the hearing. He said he’s only received a handful of positive responses to a possible change out of 100-plus emails and phone calls.

“I think the public opinion shows us to keep it the same,” he said.

Board member Darell Edie said he took a tally of the feedback from the meeting and ended up with 17 percent for a change and 83 percent against. “I don’t see how we would change the start/stop times at this point because of the feedback we’ve had,” he said.

Board member Pete Paukstelis echoed some of the parent comments about the studies provided to the board only being focused on teenagers.

“What does the data show about the performance of younger kids starting earlier?” Paukstelis asked. He said the effects of an early start time on adolescents’ academic performance are most important since the positive effects for teenagers are already known.

Colburn said he understands the complaints. However, he said he’ll consider how early start times works for Manhattan Catholic Schools as well as Woodrow Wilson, where elementary students started on the secondary school schedule until the 2007-08 school year.

“The decision needs to be based on what’s best educationally for the students,” he said.

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