Wake County is sticking with early starts for high schools at a time when some districts are beginning high schools later and elementaries earlier to match the sleep habits of students.
The Wake school board could vote Tuesday on school bell schedules for this fall that accelerate the practice of opening high schools before 7:30 a.m. and starting most elementary schools after 9 a.m.
These times go against recommendations from groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics to delay start times for middle schools and high schools to 8:30 a.m. because teenagers have a hard time falling asleep before 11 p.m.
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Wake school officials say they need high schools to start earlier than elementary and middle schools to help get more than 70,000 bus riders to class each day.
“We understand these do bring hardships to families, and that’s not what we look to do,” Bob Snidemiller, Wake’s senior director of transportation, told the school board March 21. “But we have a responsibility to get students to school.”
Wake’s school times are drawing complaints from parents of children across the age spectrum. Parents of elementary students say the late start means working families need to pay for before-school care. Parents of teenagers say their kids shouldn’t have to get up so early.
It would be almost better if they could flip it around and have the elementary schools start earlier and flip the high schools to later.
Angela Smelcer, a parent of two children at Apex Elementary School
“It would be almost better if they could flip it around and have the elementary schools start earlier and flip the high schools to later,” said Angela Smelcer, a parent of two children at Apex Elementary School, which could shift to a 9:15 a.m. start in August.
Wake school officials say it would require study before any major changes could be made to start high schools later.
“Making a large shift for our community would be a significant change,” said Lisa Luten, a Wake schools spokeswoman. “In general, parents set their schedules around their school schedules.”
The average high school start time in North Carolina is 8 a.m., according to a study published in December by Kevin Bastian and Sarah Fuller of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Education Policy Initiative at Carolina.
In the Triangle, high schools start as early as 7 a.m. in Johnston County and 7:25 a.m. in Wake. They start as late as 8:45 a.m. in Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County and 9 a.m. in Durham.
Before this school year, Durham’s high schools started at 7:30 a.m. The school system shifted the 9 a.m. start times for several elementary schools to 7:45 a.m. to accommodate the bus changes needed to start high schools later.
Durham school officials say the new start times “better account for sleep habits of students at different ages.” They hope the change will allow teenagers “to sleep a bit more and therefore be more attentive and capable of learning during their school day.”
Bastian, the UNC-Chapel Hill researcher, said he will study the impact of Durham’s new times on student achievement in elementary and high schools. He said his recent study of North Carolina high schools found evidence that economically disadvantaged, minority and low-performing students may benefit from later start times.
There’s not been a lot of studies, but they’ve all pointed to positive results from later start times.
Kevin Bastian of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Education Policy Initiative at Carolina
“There’s not been a lot of studies, but they’ve all pointed to positive results from later start times,” Bastian said.
Bastian said there are some disadvantages with starting high schools later, such as the impact on athletics, after-school jobs and families losing the ability to have teens look after their younger siblings.
As with Durham, start times for high schools in Wake County are tied to times for elementary schools. Both districts use staggered school start times so buses can make multiple runs in the morning and afternoon.
In Wake’s three-tier bus system, most high schools start at 7:25 a.m., most middle schools at 8:15 a.m. and most elementary schools at 9:15 a.m.
Wake school officials have said they need high schools to be on the first tier because they have larger transportation areas than middle and elementary schools. Officials also say it would take significantly more drivers, at a time when Wake is facing a shortage, to get enough buses on the road to handle later high school start times.
Bus driver shortage
Faced with the driver shortage, school transportation officials are recommending changes for this fall such as starting Apex High 15 minutes earlier at 7:10 a.m. and shifting Apex and North Forest Pines elementary schools later to 9:15 a.m.
Apex High families have balked at the earlier start on Wake’s online discussion forum.
I’m very sympathetic with the Apex High School community. I just don’t know how else we can do it.
Wake County school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner
“I’m very sympathetic with the Apex High School community,” said school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner. “I just don’t know how else we can do it.”
Kushner has called the inability to start high school later one of her greatest frustrations since being elected to the board in 2011.
Parents at Apex and North Forest Pines elementary schools have said they’ll now have to pay for before-school care.
“It is a sad commentary to understand that hundreds of families will be negatively impacted by the school district’s inability to attract just six bus drivers,” Steve Murray, a North Forest Pines parent, said on Wake’s discussion forum.