St. Paul May Postpone Decision on Later Starting Times for High School Students

Valeria Silva, St. Paul Schools superintendent, recommended this week that the school board set aside a proposal to change start times of school day for high school students. The idea is controversial and will, no doubt, result in spirited debate.

Jean O’Connell, board member, referred to research that has shown that high school students are more successful academically when school start times are later. Anthony Lonetree of the Star Tribune writes that O’Connell believes that concerns over bus scheduling should not take priority over achievement issues. This discussion took place during a committee meeting that included a report that recommended the start time decision should be shelved until the 2016-2017 school year.

This decision would eliminate, for this school year, the need for elementary students to begin their school day from one to two hours earlier and would give the district time to review and coordinate bus schedules with Metro Transit. The changes for elementary students is one of the consequences that must be considered when attempting to align school start times with teenagers biorhythms. Another solution, says board member Anne Carroll, is to somehow come up with the $8 million to $10 million needed to keep elementary and high school camps happy. Silva said that prospect was highly unlikely.

“I think the recommendation makes sense … because there are so many unknown questions,” said Ryan Vernosh, the district’s strategic planning and policy administrator, who led the discussions. “I think it would be an ill-advised decision to say we’re shifting or we’re not shifting.”

Although Metro Transit has been transporting Minneapolis high school students to and from the city’s high schools, it has been established that 23% of St. Paul’s students would have a 45 to 90 minute commute, according to Josh Verges reporting for St. Paul Pioneer Press. It is possible that a hybrid system of city and school bus routes could be created or the city could send more buses along those routes. However, Metro Transit needs to set the 2015-2016 schedule soon because families need to know what to expect. The steering committee also heard concerns about elementary students’ safety when boarding buses at sunrise and returning home before their older siblings.

Boua Xiong, reporting for KARE, says the school board is expected to vote on the recommendation at its Oct. 14 meeting.

“This isn’t the end of the conversation. We just needed to make a decision to give our families enough lead time moving into next year for our school choice fair. We didn’t feel it would be wise to make a decision to shift or to not shift permanently while we still are gaining this information,” said Ryan Vernosh, policy and strategic administrator for the district.

The actual report from the steering committee, posted on the KARE, MPR site, included a detailed explanation of the reasons the later start time for teens is so important. Since later circadian rhythms and early high school start times result in approximately 68% of teens not getting their recommended hours of sleep, many schools have made the decision to move high school start times to 8:30 or later, due to this documented sleep deprivation. The health benefits which have been reported include: decrease in anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts; fewer visits to school nurse; and a decrease in automobile accidents for teens. Academic benefits have included: alertness in class; better attendance; higher GPAs; and better standardized test scores.