Later High School Start Times Earn Mixed Reviews in Reston

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.

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