Education

No new school start times: After lengthy debate, Anchorage School Board opts to stay the course

Anchorage school start times won't change next year, and neither will the length of Thanksgiving break.

The Anchorage School Board overwhelmingly rejected the proposed changes at a meeting Monday night, opting to stay the current course and overriding recommendations from the school district administration.

The board's ruling on school start times marks the end of a roughly yearlong debate that included community meetings, surveys, a consultant-led study of the start-time issue, several different proposed scheduling scenarios and a recommendation from Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop to move start times later for older students and earlier for younger ones.

Research shows older students would benefit from starting school later, the district has said, but to accomplish that with a limited number of buses and time, the district would need to shift everyone's schedules in some way.

Some board members said Monday that the proposed changes to school start times would cause serious disruption across the Anchorage community, including students with after-school jobs and families who may not have the resources to make adjustments.

School board member Dave Donley said community members have mostly told him they're strongly opposed to changing start times. Now is not the right time for the change, said Starr Marsett, board president.

"There's so much going on in our school district right now, and so many changes going on, and this impacts our staff, it impacts our community. And if it impacts our staff and the community, it impacts our students," Marsett said.

Under Bishop's recommendation, high schools would start and end 30 minutes later; middle schools would start and end one hour and 15 minutes later; and elementary schools would start and end 15 minutes earlier.

The district has called this recommendation the "best compromise" to address students' sleep needs and avoid significant disruptions. Other proposed scenarios had elementary school students getting out of class before high school students, but parents raised concerns about older students not being home first to take care of younger siblings. There were also concerns about jobs, sports, day care and the impacts earlier start times would have on young students.

Board member Alisha Hilde said she wanted high school start times moved later than what Bishop had proposed. National organizations such as the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended that middle and high school students start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m., she said. Bishop's recommendation would have pushed back Anchorage start times to just 8 a.m. and punted middle school start times to 9:30 a.m.

The board rejected Bishop's recommendation Monday, with just board member Deena Mitchell voting in favor of it. Board members Donley, Hilde, Marsett, Andy Holleman and Elisa Snelling opposed it. School board members are currently filling the seventh board seat after Bettye Davis resigned in September.

Mitchell said she found the research about the benefits older students get from starting school later — from improved behavior to reduced anxiety to better grades — very compelling. Schools across the country have moved start times later for teenage students.

"I know it is hard for a community to adapt. I know there are a lot of constraints on our students. I know there are kids who have to earn money to support their families. But at the end of the day, in the long run, they are going to have much higher earning potential if they can do better in school," Mitchell said after the meeting.

Both Mitchell and Hilde proposed amendments Monday to Bishop's recommendation, suggesting shifting schedules in other ways. Board members rejected both amendments.

Anchorage educators still don't have a contract, and they packed Monday's board meeting. The Anchorage Education Association didn't take a position on whether to shift start times because not everyone had the same opinion, said the teachers union president. Public comment during the meeting ranged from the potential closing of Mount Spurr Elementary School to the loss of the middle school model. Just a few people brought up school start times.

Michelle Bergquist, a teaching assistant at Gruening Middle School, told the board she opposed changing start times. The recommendation only gives high school students an extra 30 minutes of sleep, she said, but it has serious implications for many others, including middle school students who wouldn't get out of school until 4 p.m.

"You're going to cause a financial impact on so many families — there are so many factors to take into consideration — for an extra half-hour of sleep for the high schoolers?" she said.

Dr. Phyllis Kiehl, a pediatrician, said a school day that starts too early negatively impacts adolescents. Schools that have pushed start times later for older students have seen improvements in students' health, safety and academics.

"The bottom line is: We should do what's right for the children, so I urge you to finally make some changes," she told the board.

Thomas Pease, a teacher at Mears Middle School, questioned whether changing school start times was a wise use of public resources.

District administrators started exploring changing school start times last year at the direction of the school board. They hired a Colorado-based consulting business, Western Demographics, to research the start-time issue and get feedback from the community through open house meetings and surveys. The district agreed to pay Western Demographics up to $63,790 for the start-time work, according to the contract. It had spent $23,840 by Tuesday, said Jim Anderson, the district chief financial officer.

The Anchorage School Board last voted on whether to change school start times in 2002. The debate centered on whether to have high schools start later than 7:30 a.m. The board sided with then-Superintendent Carol Comeau, who said the district should continue researching the issue because there was no community consensus about what to do, according to an Anchorage Daily News article from the time.

On Monday, the board also approved calendars for the next three school years that closely mirror the current calendar. The calendars don't extend Thanksgiving break by three days or move the first day of school three days earlier, as was recommended by a calendar committee made up of educators, administrators and community members.

A longer Thanksgiving break would negatively impact too many people, Holleman said.

In a 5-1 vote, the board approved school calendars for 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22. Students' first day of school next year is on Aug. 20, a Tuesday. Thanksgiving break will still be two days.

Donley cast the only dissenting vote on the calendars. He supported not moving up the start of the school year. However, he said, he wanted students to have off the first Friday of Fur Rondy and he wanted more time between spring break and the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The board had previously rejected his amendment for those changes.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.

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