Update: FCPS Board Approves Later HS Start Times

South Lakes High SchoolAfter years of discussion, the Fairfax County School Board finally approved later high school start times for seniors on Thursday.

Starting in 2015-16, high schools will start at 8 to 8:10 a.m.  instead of 7:20 a.m. Middle schools will begin at 7:30 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. Elementary schools will essentially stay the same starting from 8 to 9:20 a.m.

The board chose an amended version of Option 3 as the preferred way to proceed with changing high school start times.

The board had been presented with four options from experts at Children’s National Medical Center who worked with the school system on a study on teens and sleep and also on the best ways FCPS could implement a new system.

The issue of later start times has been debated and explored for more than a decade in this community,” Tammy Derenak-Kaufax, School Board chairman, said in a statement. “The growing body of research on the health benefits for adolescents has become so clear and compelling, we felt that we had to make a change.”

The preferred option, chosen by Superintendent Karen Garza in September, has high schoolers starting the day between 8 and 8:10 a.m. Middle schools will begin at 7:30 a.m. Elementary schools will remain largely unchanged, with starting bells from 8 to 9:20 a.m. Secondary Schools will follow the high school bell schedule.

Changes will go into effect for the 2015-16 school year and will cost about $4.9 million to implement, says Garza.

“We believe it is best to give our families and employees plenty of time to adjust to a change of this magnitude,”  Garza said after the meeting. “Between now and next September, we will work with intention to finalize bell schedules and to make needed adjustments to ensure that this is a smooth transition for our stakeholders and our community.”

Even though the start time issue is geared at letting teenagers get crucial sleep, the youngest teens will still have to be at school a half hour earlier than the current 8 a.m. start time.

FCPS at-large board member Ryan McElveen says the proposed middle school time is not that different than the current schedule. McElveeen said the board will try to move towards even later start times in upcoming years.

“Although the plan is not perfect, it is the best feasible hybrid of multiple plans,” he told Reston Now in September. “Over the coming years, the board will continue to support pushing the middle school start time closer to 8 a.m. through small efficiencies that are realized annually.”

The FCPS board has been talking about changing the high school start times for several years, and made a formal proposal in 2012 to move the high school start time from 7:20 a.m. to after 8 a.m.

They commissioned doctors from Children’s National Medical Center, whose report said teenagers were chronically sleep deprived. Pushing high school start times past 8 a.m. would have an impact on everything from behavior to grades to driving records and sports injuries, the CNMC experts say.

In August, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement that recommended later start times so that school schedules would be aligned with the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents. 

The board held a series of community meetings last spring to gain public feedback on four options for changes.

The original Option 3 had high schools beginning from 8 to 8:10 a.m. and ending between 2:30 and 2:40 p.m. Elementary schools would start between 8 and 9:20 a.m., which is essentially the current schedule. Middle schools would see a big change with a 7:20 a.m. start and a 2 p.m. dismissal.

The board says that in the future, “our goal will be to continue to seek improvements for even later start times so that  middle schools will move towards 8 and high schools will move towards 8:30.”

The revised plan will cost less than anticipated, according to FCPS documents. The original Option 3 was estimated to cost $5.5 million, mostly to cover 46 new buses.

The revised plan will use fewer buses, and the purchase of 20 new buses has already been allocated in the FY 2015 school board budget, bringing costs to an estimated $1.5 million to $4.9 million.

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