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Start-time issue stirs debate

By Bryan Richardson

The USD 383 Board of Education will have a lot to consider when it takes up the question of school day start times next month.

The board had 18 people — elementary and high school parents, school administrators, and even a ninth-grade student — attend a hearing on the issue Wednesday, and those 18 aired differing sentiments.

The board is having a conversation about swapping the elementary and secondary start times due to various national studies that show later school times for teenagers improve attendance and academic performance.

Currently, the starting and ending times are from 7:40 a.m. to 2:57 p.m. at Manhattan High, from 7:50 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. for the middle schools, and from between 8:25 and 8:40 a.m. to 3:35 and 3:50 p.m. for the elementary schools.

The discussions are about switching start times rather than simply pushing back secondary times because of transportation costs. The district would need between $5.5 million and $8 million to purchase 32 additional buses and upgrade the transportation facility in order to accommodate the same start time.

Elementary school parents came out firmly against making their children start school an hour earlier.

Some adopted a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mantra when considering a switch. “Do we have any identifiable problems here at Manhattan High School that we’re addressing?” asked John Thurston, a parent of three elementary children.

Many mentioned that the studies provided to the board only demonstrate the effects of later start times for teenagers, not the effects of an earlier start time for young children. This included concerns about a lack of sleep for elementary students, a decrease in family time and child care concerns.

“I’m sure teenagers would benefit from an extra hour of sleep, but I do not think it should be at the expense of our elementary students,” said Calli Jund, mother of two children at Woodrow Wilson Elementary.

Two MHS teachers spoke on behalf of the benefits that the high school students could have with a later day.

Marilynn Mock, an MHS parent educator, said high school students aren’t ready for the day at 7:40 p.m. “The first hour is a wash,” she said. “It’s a waste. The kids are not awake.”

Wendy Howard, an MHS West teacher, taught at a San Antonio, Texas high school that had classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. She said activities still worked out and students were more alert.

“This is like taking a sleeping pill and trying to go to work,” she said of the early MHS schedule. “That’s what’s going on in their body.”

The elementary school principals who spoke held differing opinions. Marlatt principal Brett Nelson and Northview principal Shelley Aistrup thought the elementary school day should be earlier in order to harness the early morning energy.

Nelson said he and his wife both taught at elementary schools that had 7:40 a.m. start times, and it provided a great academic benefit. He said teachers would have more morning time to teach language arts and math.

“I would challenge anyone to try to take 20 first graders and teach language arts and math after lunch,” he said.

Aistrup said about 90 percent of her school has arrived by 7:50 a.m., and those students must wait for school to start at 8:25 a.m. “I would like to be able to capitalize on their energy in the morning and get them going 30 minutes earlier rather than have them sitting on the gym floor,” she said.

Bergman principal Lori Martin said her school’s teachers would like to see start times remain the same even though an earlier start time would allow them to be home for their families sooner.

MHS administrators didn’t provide support for an earlier start time from the perspective of after-school activities.

Mike Marsh, MHS athletic and activities director, said 80 percent of the student body participates in some after-school activity, so there should be consideration of this in the process. “Research does indicate that participation in sports and activities does raise the grade point average,” he said.

Marsh used basketball as an example of the potential issues with a later start time.

For a 4:30 p.m. basketball game, he said MHS students might leave at 2 p.m. if away and visiting fans and players could arrive around seventh hour if home. “Trying to get a gymnasium set up in a 30-minute period of time after school hours would be horrendous,” Marsh said.

Mike Dorst, MHS assistant principal, spoke on behalf of his daughter, while expressing his own concern about what might be lost in routines with a later start time. “What are they thinking? Don’t they know we have lives outside of school?” Dorst quoted his daughter as saying.

Only one student, Sterling Edgar, a Manhattan High ninth-grade student, spoke during the hearing. Using information he said came from the Mayo Clinic, he said pre-pubescent children naturally get tired by 8 or 9 p.m. while that doesn’t happen until 11 p.m. for his peers. “I always used to wake up very early until I had to,” he said.

Board member Dave Colburn said the board’s goal was to simply listen to the public at the hearing before the board’s own discussions at an Oct. 10 decision meeting.

He said the public is welcome to contribute to that discussion.

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