RALEIGH — Alarm clock settings and after-school schedules could change for families across Wake County this summer, in the name of improving academics.
Under two separate proposals considered Tuesday by the Wake school board, classroom start times would be altered and students might see more half-days during the school year. There might also be one day each week when the last bell rings an hour or so earlier than normal.
Across an entire academic year, Wake students would still spend more than the state-mandated 1,000 hours in class. The Wake proposals were unveiled on the same day President Barack Obama said American children should be in class longer, and school systems should lengthen the academic year so American children can compete with foreign students. (Story, Page 3A)
Even school leaders admit their biggest time-altering proposal will be a hard sell to parents. It calls for starting classes five to 10 minutes earlier each day at every school. This would allow schools to have two more half-days a year -- known as early release days. It also might let schools dismiss classes one hour early once a week to give teachers more planning time.
Parents might be more receptive to the second time-change proposal -- aimed at fewer schools -- because it would mesh better with students' sleep schedules and might improve classroom attentiveness. This proposal would allow students at some high-poverty high schools to start later, in recognition of teens' greater need for sleep, and kids at high-poverty elementary schools to get in earlier, another nod to the earlier wake-up tendencies of younger children.
Most Wake high schools start at 7:25 a.m. Most elementary schools begin at 9:15 a.m.
Both proposals could be approved by the school board this month for implementation as soon as July, the start of the calendar for year-round schools.
"We always have to look at new ways to help students learn," said Rosa Gill, chairwoman of the school board. "To do that, we need to give teachers more time."
Brace for griping
School leaders run the risk of renewing parental anger that was ignited earlier this year by student reassignments.
Robin Oke, an Apex parent of two students, said she would back the change to help the teachers. But she expects that many fellow parents won't be as forgiving.
"They're going to have a lot of complaining no matter what they do," Oke said.
Stephanie Cammarata, a North Raleigh parent, said starting school earlier contradicts the idea of allowing some high schools to start later.
"I can't support asking high-school students to come to school any earlier," she said.
The most sweeping proposal involves creating more time for what administrators call "professional learning communities" -- otherwise known as joint planning time for teachers.
There are two options on the table.
In Option A, school would start five minutes earlier. This would give an extra 15 hours to help keep Wake above the state requirement for 1,000 instructional hours a year.
These 900 minutes would allow elementary and middle schools to have six half-days a year, up from the four they have now. It would also let high schools that start before 7:30 a.m. to dismiss an hour early once a week. The alternative for high schools would be to let students arrive 30 minutes later once a week or to cut lunch periods to 30 minutes with the other 25 minutes being used for classes.
Option B would lead to school starting 10 minutes earlier, giving schools 30 hours more a year.
These additional 1,800 minutes would allow schools at all levels to let students out one hour early once a week. Elementary and middle schools would still get two more early release days a year.
"Teachers don't have any more energy to do what you want them to do," said Jennifer Lanane, a teacher and member of the Time Committee of parents, teachers, principals and administrators that developed the two options. "They need more time."
But school leaders admitted that picking either option could be unpopular with parents because it would lead to increased childcare costs, especially Option B.
"Everything you do affects parents, and that always has to be taken into consideration," said Donna Hargens, Wake's chief academic officer.
More sleep for teens
Under the proposal that would alter school starting times, students at a few high schools could be allowed to start later than the 7:25 a.m. opening now used by a majority of high schools. It's based on national research that suggests that early starts make it harder for high-school students to get enough sleep to function well academically.
At the same time, board members also asked staff members Tuesday to look at starting a few more elementary schools significantly earlier. Board members noted how young children generally wake up early so they're tired soon after the 9:15 a.m. start time used at most elementary schools.
Those changes would be limited to a few schools that have high concentrations of student poverty. For instance, school board member Lori Millberg suggested starting East Wake High in Wendell later while moving up the time of some of the nearby elementary schools.
The school board will discuss the options on March 24 with a final vote March 31.
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