The Anchorage School Board on Tuesday voted to change when classes start and end by at least an hour beginning in fall 2024.
The changes mean that elementary school students will begin earlier while middle and high schoolers will start later.
The district has contended that later school start times for adolescents will result in better student performance and wellness. Administrators called in national child sleep experts to talk to the board and conducted focus groups, town halls, surveys and interviews during February and March about the potential shift, saying the results of the survey were supportive of the change.
“Middle and high school students who get eight hours or more of sleep experience less depression, have more energy, are less likely to use tobacco and consume junk food, and make better decisions,” district officials wrote in a memo to school board members.
Board members were mostly in favor of the shift, noting the potential it had to improve student outcomes and help support student mental health. They approved the measure 6-1, with Andy Holleman the only no vote.
Written and oral testimony at Tuesday night’s school board meeting was largely in opposition to the change. Parents, community members and district staff voiced a variety of concerns.
Opponents noted the change would impede existing employment schedules for parents, demand increased and expensive child care at a time when the city is in the midst of a child care crisis and get in the way of after-school activities and jobs for students. They also said the change would affect those who care for younger siblings, and would leave students without daylight at the end of the day for much of the school year.
Phillip Walters, a Gruening Middle School band teacher and coach who has two elementary school children in the district, asked the board to reject the district recommendation because of the hardship it would create for families.
“Having elementary schools let out in the middle of the afternoon puts parents who are working 9-to-5 jobs in the impossible situation of having to either pay for expensive child care if they can find it — which is a big ‘if’ — or quit their job to become a stay-at-home parent,” Walters said.
Walters told board members either he or his wife would have to quit their job if the changes went through, since waitlists at area child care programs is years long — he’s been on one for four years.
Some community members and parents also took issue with how the district conducted its town halls and surveys. Some questioned the makeup of survey respondents and why the town halls weren’t more broadly representative of the highly diverse Anchorage School District.
Celeste Hodge Growden, president and CEO of the Alaska Black Caucus, said she’s heard from parents that the change poses great challenges because they do not have much flexibility at jobs and that not everyone can afford to stay home with their children, especially in communities of color.
“The fact there was very little or no voices from people of color, depending on what town hall you attended, is concerning,” Hodge Growden said at the board meeting. “I invite you to review the videos and ask what can be done to get those missing voices to the table so they can be heard and included in the outcome next time.”
[To improve kids’ mental health, some schools across the U.S. are starting later]
Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, the teachers union, said about one-third support the proposed change, one-third do not, and one-third do not have an opinion.
But one group in particular — middle school educators with elementary-aged children — said the shift would leave their children unattended for multiple hours and that without child care they may need to resign. Aist urged the district to adopt a plan that would support after-school care programs for district staff and potentially the larger community.
Some people have been supportive of the district’s proposed change and the potential benefits to students.
Nora Matell, a high school teacher, wrote to board members that she’s in favor of the change.
“My high school students are exhausted,” Matell wrote.
She said that a first-period class of 28 students in the fall had only five students by 7:30 a.m. and 14 by the time the class was over. While first period will likely always have more tardy students than other classes, Matell wrote, a later start time might reduce those and help students arrive more awake.
Some also said that the change, initially set to take effect this fall, would be too soon for families to plan around. The board ultimately voted to delay the start of the change by one year to give the district more time to plan.
Under the new policy, elementary students enrolled in the district in the 2024-25 school year will start class at 8 a.m. and be released at 2:30 p.m. Middle schoolers will start at 9:30 a.m. and be released at 4 p.m., and high school will begin at 8:45 a.m. and end at 3:15 p.m.
Currently, elementary schools mostly start at 9 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m. Middle school starts at 8:15 a.m. and ends at 2:45 p.m., while district high schools begin at 7:30 a.m. and finish at 2 p.m.
[Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the school board voted 7-1 on Tuesday evening in favor of the measure. The final vote was 6-1. ]