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Education

Should the Anchorage School District change its school start times?

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: August 9, 2017
  • Published August 9, 2017

Anchorage school administrators will start studying school start times this fall, which could result in a later school day for older students or a more innovative school schedule.

It could also result in no change at all, according to Deena Bishop, Anchorage School District superintendent.

Bishop said in an interview Tuesday that the district plans to conduct a robust community survey about the possible changes and study the costs and impacts associated with switching up school schedules.

Dr. Deena Bishop, superintendent of the Anchorage School District (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

"We're talking 21st-century education," she said. "What should it look like for kids in Anchorage?"

Currently, Anchorage high school students start their days at 7:30 a.m., followed by middle school students at 8:15 a.m. and a majority of elementary school students at 9 a.m.

Conversations about pushing back high school start times have been broached in Anchorage in the past, but School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler said last week she believes it's time for the district to revisit the issue and have a full discussion about possible schedule changes, especially if the changes could improve student learning.

"It's 2017. I'm tired of waiting," Agosti-Gisler said during Monday's Anchorage School Board meeting.

Research vs. community structures

Across the country, high-schoolers have historically started classes earlier so they can get home in time to baby-sit younger siblings. The schedule also keeps elementary school students from walking to school or bus stops in the early-morning darkness during high traffic, and it keeps them in school until late afternoon.

But research shows that the typical school schedule might not work well for teenagers' sleep schedules. During adolescence, teens' internal clocks shift, making it hard for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.

It's next to impossible for them to get the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep with such early school start times.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several other national organizations have recommended that middle and high school start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Having later start times would improve teenagers' school attendance, academic performance and behaviors, said Dr. Ross Dodge of Peak Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Anchorage. He supports high school starting at 8:30 a.m., but he said the widespread impacts of shifting start times could impede change.

"When you shift that start time, the carryover effects to the rest of society are pretty massive," he said. "I don't think that there's been resistance across the country because people don't believe in the science behind the recommendations."

Bishop said she was well aware that shifting school start times in Anchorage would have a widespread impact — from parents' work schedules to day care options to after-school jobs and sports practice. She said she wanted to hear about the consequences from all those impacted — both good and bad.

"Any kind of change is going to be difficult, but I want it to be in concert with our community — not something that they feel like is being done to them," she said.

School bus constraint

Further, Agosti-Gisler said that the district's scheduling options are constrained by a limited number of buses, so it cannot simply shift all start times to 9 a.m. The start times will likely have to be staggered.

"Any slight change in the schedule impacts every single bus route, so that's why you have to do this very methodically and intentionally," she said.

Agosti-Gisler floated the idea of running high schools from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., allowing students to select classes around their work schedules or family responsibilities. Such a schedule shift would also require an overhaul of school staffing.

"It would be a little bit more like the university level," Agosti-Gisler said, referring to the idea as a "paradigm change."

Matthew Park, an incoming sophomore at West High School, would like to see the district's high school start times pushed back to 8:30 a.m. He started an online petition last month that had gotten more than 4,700 signatures by Wednesday.

Park said in an email that some school days he had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. because his parents dropped him and his sister off at different schools.

He said he was "half-awake" during most of his classes and had difficulty concentrating on the lesson. He also has watched some of his groggy peers fall asleep at their desks, he said.

"It has been frustrating to see such an apparent problem go unaddressed," Park said.

According to a CDC study, the average start time for public middle and high schools nationwide was 8:03 a.m. during the 2011-2102 school year. Alaska had the latest average start time at 8:33 a.m, the study said.

Tom Klaameyer, president of the Anchorage Education Association, said the teachers' union supported having the conversation about school start times "if it can help lead to gains for our students." However, he also said a change would have myriad impacts on the community.

"If the school day were to begin later, sports practices and games might be pushed later. Is that good for our kids?" he said. "How would a later school day affect opportunities for kids to hold part-time jobs in the evenings, some of whom do so to help support their families? What about before-and-after day care issues for elementary students and the impacts on families whose parents may or may not be able to change their work schedule to match the new school times?"

During the 2002-03 school year, more than 4,500 people weighed in on ASD changing its start times and many wanted to keep the schedule the same, according to an Anchorage Daily News article at the time. The superintendent recommended no change to start times.

Bishop said Tuesday the administration will study start times again this fall and she hopes to bring a recommendation to the school board in January or February. She said the administration will also examine the district's calendar, including holidays and when the school-year starts.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Anchorage high school students start their school days at 7:45 a.m. Their days start at 7:30 a.m.

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