NEWS DAY | Who gets to sleep? High school vs. kindergarten in St. Paul

Does helping high school students learn have to mean making life and learning more difficult for first-graders? That’s the question many St. Paul parents are asking, as St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) makes plans for later high school start times, beginning in 2015/16.

Most people agree that a later high school start time is good. Research, parents, students, and SPPS say that adolescent brain chemistry means they go to sleep later and wake up later, so starting the school day at 8:30 a.m. is a lot better than the current 7:30 a.m. high school start time.

The trouble comes in what that means for elementary students. SPPS proposes that most elementary schools would start at 7:30 a.m., meaning that some elementary students would get to their bus stops at 6:30 a.m.

The SPPS recommendation of a 7:30 a.m. elementary start time is not based on any research about learning, but rather on bus schedules and budgets. They want to run buses on a three-trip schedule, which means dividing school start times 7:30, 8:30 and 9:30.

A 7:30 start time for little kids is just too early, says my niece, whose second-grader attends Expo. Moreover, the district has shown little respect for parent opinions and questions. Jean Turck wrote in an August 12 email:

“Fundamentally for me, moving the start time for secondary students is a great thing.  Ignoring the lack of scientific evidence on the effect of pushing the early start time on elementary students, and ignoring alternative transportation partnerships are not great things.  The district should provide answers to their decisions and stop defaulting to the talking points and insulting a broad intelligent parent base.  We are, after all, concerned for the well-being of ALL the district students.”

Mary Karlsson, another SPPS parent who works as Assistant Director of Route and System Planning for the Metro Transit division of the Met Council, agrees. In an August 10 email to the principal of her child’s school, she wrote:

“#1 the research does not appear to clearly support transitioning to such an early start time for elementary age students (esp. considering 6:30 AM bus pick up times, which leads to something like 6 AM wake up times and 7 PM bed times to ensure elementary students have adequate sleep).”

Family time also suffers when kids get up in the dark, rush through getting dressed, brushing teeth, and maybe grabbing some breakfast, to get to the bus stop by 6:30 or 7 a.m. Family budgets suffer when working parents need to pay for extra hours of daycare at the other end of the school day, as children are dismissed at 2 p.m. By the time parents get home from work, there’s barely time for supper and bedtime routines for the youngest children, who need ten to eleven hours of sleep before starting all over again at 6 a.m.

Karlsson is also critical of the school district’s seeming lack of interest in pursuing public transportation options for students. She sees this as a missed opportunity:

“Like SPPS has done effectively with school breakfast and lunch, with this decision SPPS has the opportunity to reduce social stigma toward and increase public acceptance of walking, biking, and public transit. It has the opportunity to teach its students through experience that there are effective transportation options in the United States beyond driving a car or being driven by a personal transport service (e.g., school buses). SPPS has an opportunity to help our region build a multi-modal public transportation culture that is based in safety, accessibility, and effectiveness by helping families learn, respect, and trust the American public transportation system through their children.”

As Karlsson suggests, transportation options exist, including encouraging walking and biking, adding more buses or use of Metro Transit by high school students. However, she added in an August 26 email:

“I am not outright opposed to the 7:30 am elementary start as it may work well for some families, especially teachers, and the three tier bussing system has important benefits to both the District and broader society. The 7:30 start will not, however, work well for my family. And because of the lack of research about benefits for elementary students, I very much want to see the district offer 7:30, 8:30, and 9:30 elementary start time choices in each zone so families can choose the option that works best for them.”

SPPS is holding a series of community meetings to discuss the proposed changes. The SPPS website says: “No decisions will be made until feedback is gathered from families like you.” It will be interesting what modifications to the initial plan will result from parent input. The next meetings are:

Parents can also contact Ryan Vernosh, Strategic Planning and Policy Administrator, at ryan [dot] vernosh [at] spps [dot] org or 651-744-2907.

The Turcks and the Karlssons, along with many other SPPS parents, strongly support public education and St. Paul Public schools. They also support a later start time for high school students. But they believe that this should not be a zero-sum game, with a gain for high school students requiring a loss for elementary students. Instead, SPPS needs to find better transportation alternatives that will safeguard the health of children and families, as well as providing an educationally appropriate start time for all students.

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    Mary Turck's picture
    Mary Turck

    Mary Turck (maryturck [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance writer, editor, teacher, and lifelong activist, and former editor of the TC Daily Planet.