The Ad Hoc Committee on Start Times (AHConST) that Fairfax School Board Chair Janie Strauss recently appointed will meet immediately following the Regular School Board meeting scheduled for Thursday, June 21. The way recent school board meetings have been going, the AHConST could start talking at the stroke of midnight which, as we all know from popular entertainment, is prime zombie time. I dare say that some of the committee members -- Sandy Evans (Mason District), Patty Reed (Providence District), Ted Velkoff (At-Large) and Ryan McElveen (At-Large) -- will be feeling like zombies "bereft of consciousness and self-awareness" by the time the meeting adjourns. Let's hope that they take that as an object lesson on why later start times are necessary for the health, well being and academic performance of our high school students.
Allow me to back track briefly by congratulating the school board for their 10-2 vote (Ted Velkoff and Kathy Smith (Sully District) voted No) to adopt a resolution on the goal of the Fairfax County School Board to start high schools after 8 a.m.. By taking that first step they have acknowledged that the science is "in" on the subject of later start times for high school students. These three Whereas statements from the resolution capture the essentials:
WHEREAS, sleep plays an important role in learning and memory; and sleep debt affects teens’ ability to think, perform, and react appropriately; and
WHEREAS, there is ample evidence that later high school start times result in adolescent students getting more sleep on school nights; and,
WHEREAS, research shows there are many benefits from later high school start times, including decreases in teen depression, car crashes, behavior problems, discipline referrals, absenteeism, tardiness, and dropout rates.
The "Resolved" part of the resolution "direct[ed] the Superintendent to identify and provide a list of practices in school divisions that start high schools after 8 a.m. -- including successful approaches in school districts that have changed from before to after 8 a.m. and in school districts that have traditionally had later morning start times (including, but not limited to: Arlington County and Loudoun County, VA; Minneapolis, MN; Wilton, CT."
According to SLEEP co-founder Phyllis Payne, "Staff instead provided a history of the failed attempts to change start times in Fairfax along with transportation information from the 40 largest suburban districts, 10 of which have high schools starting after 8:00 AM."
I can confidently report that there are at least fifty high schools in large area suburban areas that have earned the a US News Gold or Silver ranking that have 8:00 AM or later 1st bell time. Please Click HERE to read independent local research on nationwide high school start times.
So, what is it that the AHConST will accomplish? We know that they don't need to review the science of later start times. We know that they don't have to figure out if later start times are achievable. Let's reframe this away from a transportation issue and place it squarely where it belongs as an instructional issue.
Here is a hint: Phyllis Payne shared that "Dr. Dale reported on a conversation he had with Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom, an expert in the field of changing high school start times. [Dr. Wahlstrom] explained that districts that succeed in making this change often begin by making the decision to have high schools start later based on the research and belief that it is beneficial, and then work with their community to resolve any potential problems before implementing the new schedule."
Change is difficult, but if, as research shows, it results in healthier, smarter students, then the community should work together to resolve potential problems. If we have the will to do it, let's work together to find the way. I believe our community can manage the change but I also believe we need help. My hope is that the AHConST will recommend to the entire school board that a Request For Proposal should be prepared that invites experts like Dr. Wahlstrom to help us help our high school students. After all, we don't want them to be bereft of consciousness and self-awareness during their 1st period classes, do we?
Greg Brandon is Vice President, Communications for the Fairfax County Council of PTAs, Communications Chair for the Virginia PTA and is a member of the Fairfax Education Coalition. The opinions expressed here are his own.