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School board weighs effects of switching morning start times

By Bryan Richardson

New morning start times for USD 383 schools could be the first of many changes to take place for the 2013-14 school year.

Based on discussions by the USD 383 Board of Education at its winter retreat in February, the board is considering changes in five different areas: morning start times, open/closed lunch at Manhattan High, early release for seniors, and the MHS and elementary schedules.

Up first is the morning start times discussion, during which the board will consider swapping the start time at MHS with the start time at the elementary schools.

MHS currently starts at 7:40 a.m. The elementary school day starts at 8:35 a.m. It is unclear at this point whether middle schools would maintain their start time of 7:50 a.m.

Sleep studies

The catalyst for the discussion is data from organizations such as the National Sleep Foundation that supports the benefits of later school times for teenagers. These benefits include improved attendance, better academic performance and even fewer car crashes (apparently from reduced drowsiness).

There’s also the belief young children function better earlier in the day.

Board member Darell Edie said he has read the studies but isn’t certain of the effects when applied to USD 383. If the change is made, Edie said he would like to see a trial run of two years before permanent implementation.

“(The studies) don’t factor in how it affects the students and parents in our current district,” he said.


Other considerations

One underlying reason why USD 383 is considering switching elementary and high school start times rather than simply moving the start time for MHS is transportation.

Board president Dave Colburn explained that the district would have to purchase more buses to transport all of the district’s students if all schools started around the same time.

Coming to a decision

The school board will have a hearing at its Sept. 19 meeting to allow the public to give various perspectives. The board will make its decision at a special meeting Oct. 10.

Changing the morning start times is an issue that the school board has mentioned before, but setting a deadline meeting represents the first concrete step toward a decision.Board member Walt Pesaresi, who has served on the board since 2001, said this is an issue that has come up at least two or three times during his tenure.

“There were always things more important to talk about, people thought,” he said. “It always got pushed on the back burner.”

Pesaresi and fellow board member Pete Paukstelis both said they were glad the issue is finally exiting the conversation phase.

“I think it’s good we’re finally sitting down, exploring and making a decision one way or the other,” Paukstelis said.

Most of the board members didn’t share their personal leanings in one direction or the other. But Pesaresi was the exception, indicating his preference for the switching of start times.

“Personally, I think it’d be the best thing to happen academically,” he said.

Pesaresi said he has heard from many elementary school parents in recent years about extending the school day. In the past, the district has added minutes when it needed to make up time lost to snow days. It also added time when four school days were eliminated because of construction.

“It’s not just the start time,” he said. “It’s the end-of-the-day time. It changes everything.”


Leaving kids

in the dark?

Next to Pesaresi, board vice president Curt Herrman might be the next toughest to convince.

Herrman said he wants to keep the start times the same, and it would take some strong persuading for him to change his mind.

“We could potentially have kids staying in the dark four or five months in the year,” he said.

Should the start time change take effect, Herrman said a potential remedy could involve a parent rotation to make sure an adult is out in the street with the children when it’s dark out.

Colburn originally had a firm dislike of elementary school children being outside in the dark. But he pointed out that Manhattan Catholic School already functions that way; it has a 7:42 a.m. start time.

“The whole issue of safety for little kids is important, but it’s important to note that’s how the Manhattan Catholic kids are doing it,” Colburn said. “They seem to be surviving.”

Edie, who has a daughter in the third grade, would be directly affected by the earlier school day for elementary school.

He said it would easier to get her ready in the morning. “It’d actually be helpful for me, but it wouldn’t be for everybody,” he said.

The effect on athletics

The main drawback that board members mentioned with the potential switch is the effect on after-school activities.

At the elementary level, board members wondered about adding another hour to the workload of those watching students after school.At the high school level, this means student activities being pushed back to later, which wouldn’t match up with other high schools.

“Almost all the other schools are on an early start time and all the athletic events are based on that,” Colburn said.

Being in school an hour later than the rest of the schools could mean students missing class time, he said.

Pesaresi said he’s aware of the potential trouble with high school athletics, but education should come first.

“I’m sorry, but academics should be the biggest thing,” he said.

Board member Leah Fliter said pushing back school later would push back the remainder of the students’ day including when they get home, do homework and possibly their normal sleep time.

“Part of that can be adjusted over time,” she said. “The community has been built around this current start time.”

Although switching the start times seems to be in line with the “optimal cycle” for student learning, Fliter said she’s waiting to hear from the community and administrative staff on the issue.

“It’s not going to be a quick or easy decision,” she said. “It’s important to keep an open mind.”

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