Board to Revisit Later School Start Times
With six new members, Fairfax County board explores time shift for system schedule
Three years after the Fairfax County School Board voted against a schedule shift that would accommodate later high school start times, members will revisit the issue next week with a vote on a resolution to develop a system-wide goal of starting high schools after 8 a.m.
The resolution, scheduled to come before the board at its April 12 meeting, calls for the adoption of that goal but also directs Superintendent Jack Dale to identify and report on school divisions that have traditionally had and have transitioned to later morning start times, including neighboring Arlington and Loudoun counties along with Minneapolis, Minn; Wilton, Conn.; and Brevard, Fla.
Dale would present his findings to the board at a June 11 work session.
County buses pick up students in some areas as early as 5:45 a.m., and drop them off at high schools between 6:45 and 7 a.m. First period begins at 7:20 a.m.
In the past 14 years, two Fairfax County Public Schools Task Forces found in 1998 and 2008 respectively that moving the county's high school start times to later in the day would benefit students and the larger community, and recommended the school system find a way to do it.
Advocates have said the schedule interferes with teenagers' "physical and cognitive need for sleep," citing studies from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) that say adolescents need an average of nine hours of sleep per night for "optimal performance, health, and brain development."
The issue deeply divided the school board in 2009 when staff presented a single revenue-neutral plan that was unpopular among many parents and others in the school community who worried about the impact a schedule change would have on afterschool activities, transportation and start times for younger students.
But last fall's election attracted several candidates who offered their support for exploring ways to develop a "healthier" student, including revisiting the hour students arrive at school. Many of those candidates now sit on the school board.
"This is a new board ... so this is a way of trying to get us on the record as saying we’re going to have this as a goal and give us some information about how jurisdictions have succeeded in this, how they have organized elementary, middle and high school schedules, how they have arranged buses and sports teams, and see if we can learn from their example,” said member Sandy Evans (Mason), who co-founded Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP) in 2004 to advocate for later high school start times.
Evans, who was elected to board in a special election in March 2010 and won the Mason seat again in an uncontested race last November, said a major flaw of the last review process was the board only had one plan to work with and did not use the feedback it received to develop other options.
This board also has the benefit of more data, Evans said: The Fairfax County Youth Survey, administered to middle and high school students across the county, has asked about sleep habits for several years. It has found two-thirds of all respondents get on average seven or less hours of sleep a night. That means by the end of each week, many students have racked up 14 or more hours of "sleep debt."
"Having been able to quantify that, I think, will help guide us because we can now see very clearly what we're dealing with," Evans said. "We can start with a gauge."
The board will vote on the issue at its 7:30 p.m. meeting April 12 at Luther Jackson Middle School.