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Later High School Start Times Earn Mixed Reviews in Reston

by Karen Goff May 28, 2014 at 3:30 pm 22 Comments

Parents discuss FCPS high school bell changes at Reston meeting.

Fairfax County Public Schools officials were at South Lakes High School Tuesday to discuss with the community plans for changing high school start times.

What they found there was mostly enthusiastic support, with some criticism. Most in attendance welcome the changes.

“We are unanimously for the later start times.” said Jennifer Boysko, whose daughters have gone through Herndon High. “We all have high schoolers who have suffered. I believe getting sleep is most important.”

After a 2012 decision committing to changing high school start times, FCPS paid experts at Children’s National Medical Center more than $100,000 to study the impact on lack of sleep among teens and formulate scenarios for bell changes.

FCPS high schools currently begin at 7:20 a.m. The proposals all have high school starting between 8 and 9:15 a.m., with various bell changes to elementary and middle schools as well. See all four proposals in detail on the FCPS website.

The proposals will cost between $2.7 million and $7.6 million to implement, mostly to purchase new buses. Last week, the FCPS school board approved the 2015 budget, but received less than expected from the county board of supervisors, had to make $97 million in cuts, and will offer employees delayed step raises.

Some parents at the SLHS meeting said they fear that existing programs will be cut in order to pay for the new arrangement.

“Money is being wasted,” said one mother of two high schoolers. “Teachers are not being paid. Classes are getting bigger. And these proposals will cost more money.”

At-large school board member Ryan McElveen said the FCPS budget for 2016 will include a 3 percent increase (about $60 million), part of which will cover the additional transportation costs.

“We have been talking about this for two decades,” he said. “Personally, I am tired of talking about it. It is time to find a solution that does not cost too much.”

While there will likely be adjustments to field and facility use, McElveen said the board is committed to keeping extracurriculars such as sports, arts and music.

What won’t happen: no change at all, said McElveen. There will be bell changes beginning in 2015-16, he said.

But that news also irritated some at the meeting, who said the county is making decisions first and gathering public opinion later.

“What has not been taken into account is that half my caseload need to [go to] work after school,” said one high school counselor. “They are not taking into account the demographics of different schools. [Employees] will now be getting out at rush hour. I live in Montgomery County. It will take me 90 minutes to get home. I should go work in Montgomery County.”

Before the community members split up into small discussion groups, they heard from Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center and one of the consultants that worked on the FCPS report.

Owens said teens’ sleep habits are “in direct conflict with high school start times.” She cited stats that said chronic sleepiness impacts school performance and mood, and contributes to sports-related injuries, obesity and poor impulse control.  To see a full report from CNMC, visit Project Smart Sleep.

“Delaying school start times is one of most important ways to help ensure adolescents are getting enough sleep,” she said, adding that students who start school after 8 a.m. are less likely to be depressed, get better grades, score as much as 200 points higher on the SATs and may have higher future earnings.

That was good news to many of the parents at the meeting, which was a full house at SLHS. Most of the tables working as a focus group said they were pleased the board wanted to move forward with the time changes.

They said they were most supportive of Option No. 4, which starts high school at 9:15 am., middle schools at 8:20-8:30 a.m. and elementary schools from 7:40 to 9:15 a.m. That option is also the cheapest, at $2.75 million.

There will be several more community meetings on this subject through June. The school board hopes to endorse a plan by the fall, which would give parents, day care providers and sports leagues almost a year to plan for the changes.

  • John Lovaas

    Sounds like a different meeting than the one I attended at South Lakes last night where the responses from the 22 small working groups set up to consider the 4 options presented was overwhelmingly positive for the top two change options–i.e, either starting high school classes at 8:30 or 9:10, an hour and 10 minutes and an hour an 50 minutes later respectively. 16 of the 22 groups reported out in favor solidly of those two options–most for the 9:10 option in fact. Only three tables reported a majority opposed to those two.
    One teacher speaking for her table was mildly critical of the 9:10 option in particular and noted that a couple of proposals from the work groups were contrary to the teachers’ contract provisions. And she asked for clarification of a couple of points.
    2 or 3 Fairfax County Park authority spoke against later start times for fear that their sports fields would not be fully used–they made no mention of the positive effects on the physical and mental health of the teenage students.
    The rest of the evening was uniformly positive for change with the most positive impact for the kids. At my table the vote was 6-0 for the 9:10 AM option–I don’t county myself because as I told them, my kids are not in school thus not affected.
    Havlng listened to the studies’ findings and the overwhelming views of the 100-plus parents present at SLHS last night, most positive course of action for our youth seems crystal clear.

    • Karen Goff

      John – I talked individually to a lot of people. There were opinions on both sides of the issue.

      • John Lovaas

        I participated with one work group and stayed and listened carefully to the reports, including noting minority opinions, for all 22 work groups.
        The vast majority favored start time changes over one hour as noted in my first comment. I don’t doubt you found a handful of dissenters, but I think your headline distorts the views expressed in groups and votes in those groups by over 100 people.
        Just saying….

        • Debra Steppel

          Our workgroup (a different one from John’s) was also 6-0 in favor of later start times. I counted 3 groups reporting back with “mixed feelings” and 19 groups with at least a majority (not always unanimous like ours was, but more than half) in favor of later start times. I don’t often agree with John Lovaas, but in this case, my observation concurs with his. Yes, there were some outliers, and clearly the details of the changes need work, but the reported-back comments I heard which received overwhelming crowd applause were consistently the ones supportive of later start times.

          • Karen Goff

            I was sitting at a table where someone was spitting mad and asking Ryan McElveen difficult questions. I often get better quotes when I talk to people individually, so that’s what I did rather than just report what each table was saying. The two teachers really also were threatening to quit. This is what I saw; it’s not a scientific process where I counted the number of people. From my interviews, the feelings were mixed. We will see what happens when the process plays out. It has a long way to go.

          • Debra Steppel

            Karen, I am confident that you reported on exactly what you heard. My point above was that what you heard was not the same as what I (and John) heard. Clearly there were individuals in attendance with very strong opinions. I agree, we will see what happens as additional sessions are held at other schools in the next few weeks.

          • Caroline Hemenway

            “Better quotes” = good reporting?? Really??? That’s what Fox News is for.

  • Leslie Sogandares

    I was at one of “only three tables” described in these comments as having “mixed feelings” and being “mildly critical.” Not the case at all. At my table, we were overwhelmingly against all four options, no matter the time differentials, with respect to the effect upon budget and cuts to existing programs to achieve cost savings. Present at the table: FCPS employees and parents of current students.

    I agree with Mr. Lovaas that the room was mostly receptive to the information presented by the county, but I believe that has more to do with a perception in the community that these meetings are set up to support SLEEP/changes to start times rather than to discuss the pros and cons of change vs. no change to the bell schedule.

    Those of us who don’t support this change aren’t coming to these meetings because we realize that the county has already made up its mind to change, thus the meeting matters concern hearing the results of the study Ms. Goff mentioned in the article and breaking into table groups to collaborate over the county’s 4 options–none of which include leaving the schedule as is. We listened as Ms. Owens explained the results of numerous studies that conclude sleep’s benefits to teens–higher test scores, fewer car accidents and suicidal thoughts.

    And we waited for someone to present even minor reference to drawbacks to the plan, but none was offered in the 43 minute “report” to the room. I was waiting for Ms. Owens to point out that, in some cases, students benefit from a bell schedule that allows them to participate in sports, theater, academic enrichment, and employment. In those 43 minutes, one sentence was devoted to the counter-argument: “Not all students will benefit equally.” Indeed. Many student could face cuts to their after school programs. I imagine a meeting in another 12 years where someone stands before a report and cries foul over the increasing numbers of overweight students and those who lack an outlet for their creative endeavors.

    The presentation, like the table group collaborations, were set up to create an atmosphere of support. So, Mr. Lovaas, you are correct that the mood was more positive than negative. But I can guarantee you that that mood does not exist outside the room. As a result of these meetings, people in the community are beginning to look more closely at the numbers presented–the cost estimates for new buses only–and they are becoming acutely aware that these costs don’t represent the entire picture. Missing in these “estimates” are costs that may be associated with hiring additional personnel to guard street crossings for elementary students who will be walking to school in the dark across streets where no crossing guards are provided now. And while not a direct monetary cost, the bell change will affect after-school sports, enrichment and activities. Field and pool facility use disputes are bound to come up. And consider that many of your teaching faculty who rely upon a second job to meet their financial obligations and the cost of living in the DC metro area may lose the opportunity to tutor or coach after school.

    Please understand that I am not in favor of kids developing life-long health and mental issues over continued loss of sleep. I just believe, as do some in the minority at this meeting, that the county is pushing something forward that 1) it cannot afford right now, and 2) it refuses to address thoroughly and honestly. Those people may not have been present at this meeting, or any of the other opportunities for support across the county, but they are out in your community and they are becoming more and more informed about how the county is proceeding with a plan whose true stripes haven’t yet been exposed. That will likely change as a result of these meetings.

    • Caroline Hemenway

      I can guarantee you with equal fervor that the mood “outside the room” is overwhelmingly in support of later high school start times, among teachers and parents. I can say with equal vehemence that people may not be attending because they know change is happening and are relieved. I can say for a fact that the numbers attending this time around far exceed those who attended last time around, and are in far greater support of change.

      What I witness is too many opponents with a donkey in the athletics race and too many with a fear of change at the expense of the health and success of our children. (Who think nothing of the changes when their kids go from ES to MS to HS or they move from job to job or home to home.) Who are succumbing to the emotional manipulation of opponents and thus make themselves deaf to the science and to the fact that most legitimate concerns can be addressed and the rest were not borne out in other districts where later start times were implemented.

      BTW, when teachers stomp their feet and say “I’m moving to Montgomery County,” they should know MoCo is considering later start times and is further along than Fairfax. And they should know that we are LOSING potential teachers to neighbors, including Loudoun, all of which have later start times.

      I heard some very good suggestions from teachers at the meeting to help resolve concerns, which earned outright applause, too. Including letting them set their own office hours like college professors do, paying them a living wage so they can live where they work and not suffer what they do NOW in commute time, treating them like the professionals they are, ensuring their days won’t be extended with changed start schedules. All of which parents support, too.

      I encourage opponents to get aboard this inevitable and necessary improvement and work WITH supporters to RESOLVE challenges this time around, instead of pulling out swords or pouting in corners.

      • Jean Ballard

        Sorry Karen. The others are right. Your story details are on point, but the headline is misleading. There was almost unanimous support for later start times with a minority of concerns from a few. The few were of the minority — no question. If your readers see only the title, they would have a very different opinion of what transpired. Good job on the article but the headline should be changed.

      • Leslie Sogandares

        Do this for me, Caroline. Please explain, in detail, how you propose paying teachers a living wage, as you describe above, with a budget shortfall. Evidence your remarks with exact figures from the county. Most teachers I know are not balking at the idea of later start times. They are concerned about the actual costs of this change and how those costs will impact any discussions of teacher pay. At this point, given the recent work by the board and the county to agree upon a final 2014-15 FCPS budget, teachers are looking at a delayed step increase, increases to their class sizes–which “costs” plenty, I assure you–and a much heavier workload as a result of layoffs to current staff numbers. Ask any teacher which is more important: buying buses or paying for needed classroom support? or being paid a small raise on time?

        I assure you I am aware that teachers have excellent suggestions. And so do parents. Several came out of the table discussions Tuesday night. But no one has explained how a county that can’t pay for its current load of staff, can’t afford to fulfill a promise to fund raises, and can’t keep class sizes at their present levels CAN AFFORD this change?

        The people in the community whom you dismiss simply as having “a donkey in the athletics race” just don’t buy the county’s response to the funding question as “We support our after school activities” and “I’m not an expert in budget matters.” Those were the responses our table got to questions about costs and cuts.

        And those are the responses that parents of these donkeys are getting in the community.

  • Caroline Hemenway

    Poor lead. Worse headline. This reporter was clearly not at the meeting I and dozens of others attended. Did she hear the entire room full of dozens of people erupt in applause when the second group reported that the options with the least change were non-starters and that the one with the latest high school start time, Option 4, was clearly the best one?? THAT was the headline!

    Did she hear table after table report the same thing – many with unanimous support and almost all of them choosing either the first or fourth option, which both start high school after 8:30am? Did she talk to the teacher at OUR table who really wanted this later start time because she wanted her kids awake for her classes?? Cherry-picking from the tiny few who opposed any change, and talking to one or two teachers, and then claiming “mixed reviews” was negligent.

    Did she ask anyone about the history behind the athletics-uber-alles opposition that poisoned the last discussion with outright lies over healthy start times? Who are seeding these meetings with the same virulent fear-mongering, and at least one of whom appeared to be sitting at the first table, the only one wanting no change?

    Truth, please. I’m a former journalist and this story would not pass muster under my editors. Readers need to know that room was full, and it gave an overwhelming ovation for Option 4, high schools starting the latest for the best results for the health, education, and well-being of our cherished students. Which should be the goal of every single responsible adult, above their own conveniences and needs. And which almost every adult at that that meeting applauded, responsibly.

  • Caroline Hemenway

    May I ask why my post was removed? Is this a private blog where challenging the reporting can be taken personally, or a news story? I’m confused.

    • Karen Goff

      Your post was not removed. I see several from you, including the one about Fox News.

      • Caroline Hemenway

        There were three related to this story. I apologize if it’s still here somewhere and I’m just not seeing it. I was challenging the reporting veracity and provided an account of the applause that erupted when Option 4 was supported.

        • Karen Goff

          They are all there. And FYI, the story has been tweaked to reflect that. Still, there are some very concerned detractors, and I needed to address that as well.

          • Caroline Hemenway

            Thank you for tweaking. (Still can’t see that post.) I was wondering if reporters this time around could circle back after hearing opposition arguments and report on solutions that have been implemented or are possible, and verify whether arguments are legitimate. This would be a huge change from a couple of years ago where misinformation and outright lies went unchallenged in the media…. Tuesday night, for example, one person stated that Loudoun high schools ended at 3:15pm to argue that they have more after school time for some reason. That is not true. They end around 3:50pm, and their sports are highly competitive. Others have stated as “fact” that sports will be “killed.” That is simply untrue, and these people refuse to engage in available solutions for sharing fields and fitting extracurricular activities in shifted schedules. At Marshall, where a lot of kids work after school, clubs meet at lunchtime. At TJ, which starts at 8:30, there is an 8th period for clubs, and kids who have occasional tournaments that require them to leave early don’t miss classes (i.e., for tennis, where for a small part of the season they have to end before dark.) In other cases, people were claiming that kids would walk to school in the dark, and that is not in any plan. And that bus routes would be far longer; untrue — schedules/numbers would be modified to make routes shorter, thus the greater costs. This kind of misinformation really requires good reporting to correct. I beg of you to keep on top of that. It was truly reprehensible what opponents did last time to foment fear with lies. FCPS itself sabotaged the whole thing back then, and there is proof of that with their spurious and awful “Option 3” touted around as if SLEEP supported it when nothing was further from the truth. … Thanks for your patience with passion.

  • Chris

    Parents will be left to deal with the fallout of teachers quitting or transferring to be closer to home and avoid traffic, especially at the High School level. This will seriously disrupt the system for a number of years and more than liekly will never function well. Furthermore, parents are going to struggle with after school practices/academics which will start around 5 and run well into the evening. Say goodbye to “family dinner” and the ability of students to earn an income working part-time. This will result in more sleep time in the early hours, but kids will be forced to stay up late to keep up nullifying any benefit. In fact later start times will just get teenagers in the habit of sleeping in and staying up late….bad things happen late at night. It also defies one of my favorite mantras, “the early bird catches the worm”. GOOD LUCK WITH THIS PREDESTINED SCHEDULE CHANGE!

  • Jeff

    Let’s have the parents make the kids put down the cell
    phones, tablets, computers, and turn off the PlayStation and Xbox, and go to bed.
    That is the best and cheapest option.

    • Leslie Sogandares


  • Name

    As a teacher in the
    County, I have several concerns with this whole idea:

    First I have to ask, how
    many of you drive a vehicle on area roads. Pushing our start times back almost
    2 hours is not going to allow for more sleep, because we will be stuck in
    traffic for a good chunk of that time. Thousands of kids/parents and teachers are
    going to be adding to our already overcrowded freeways and side streets at
    exactly the time when the traffic is at its worst. I won’t be quitting my job
    to move to Montgomery County, but I also won’t be staying after school to offer
    kids help like I currently do. I will be “knocking kids out of the
    way” to beat them to the parking lot so I can get on the road and home as
    quickly as possible. And I don’t have any children. My colleagues who have to
    drive out to Loudon County in time to pick up their kids, take them to sporting
    activities or doctor/dentist appointments will be forced to leave school early
    or leave the county to even have a chance at a home life.

    Secondly, I second all
    that Leslie Sogandares says below about spending. It boggles the mind that we
    are claiming to care about quality education and at the same time spending
    money on more buses when cuts are happening everywhere else in the county and
    our class sizes are exploding.

    I’m not a scientist, but
    understand a little about how science can be used to make any argument. I’m not
    convinced that the change SLEEP is arguing for is even that beneficial. When I
    was a kid, we went to bed early so we could get 8 hours of sleep. Now, we are
    trying to redesign a whole system because, for some reason kids are no longer
    able to do that. Even if there is some veracity to the science, the reality is
    we are going to hit a huge wall called reality when it comes to traffic and

    The SLEEP supporters, who
    I know are coming out in droves to these meetings because they have a vested
    interest in achieving their goals, are way over represented. If the county were
    to survey all the parent, teachers and kids who are too busy to come to these
    meetings, they might discover that the support is not so overwhelming. Sadly, I
    suspect the School Board is already committed to this change and we will only
    realize what a HUGE mistake it is after we have sat in worse traffic for a
    year, disrupted the continuity of our teaching professionals and realized that
    we aren’t getting any more sleep and we are wasting a lot more money.

  • Noelle

    I’m for later start times, but 9:10am over 8:30am? Why?


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