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Later Start Time at Madison?

Parents, students react to proposal to start the day later at James Madison High School.

During her sophomore year, teachers would pull Elena Coyle out of class. Not because she was a troublemaker, but because she looked terrible. Juggling gifted and talented classes, dance team, forensics team and play rehearsal, in addition to her regular coursework, Elena wore herself thin. If she only had more sleep, she could function better, Elena thought.

So when she ran for student executive board her junior year, she wanted to set her campaign apart. She pledged to lobby for a later start time at James Madison High School.

"I was never getting enough sleep," said Elena, who will attend the University of Virginia this fall. "During that time period, I was very unhealthy."

Elena's actions, along with parents' concerns and interest from School Board member Stu Gibson, led to a community meeting held last Monday, May 19, to discuss the possibility of giving Madison High School a later start time. Instead of starting school at 7:20 a.m., school would start later, possibly at 8:10 a.m. or 8:30 a.m.

The impetus of starting later is based on research saying that teenagers function better not only if they get more sleep, but have sleep that coincides with their body clocks. While some refute the research, others say the research only backs up what they've known for a long time: that teens function better with more sleep.

"I like my daughter to wake up later," said Neal Meriweather, a Madison parent. "It's not a way to start the morning. She would get more sleep, have time to eat breakfast. There would be less friction in the house."

If the Fairfax County School Board allows Madison to change their start time, the change would go into effect in Sept. 2004. To accommodate the start time, Fairfax County would have to adjust the busing schedules of several Madison pyramid schools. Although the actual start time at Madison has yet to be determined, schools that could be affected include Thoreau Middle School, which would be moved to the earliest time of the school bus schedule, Cunningham Park Elementary, Vienna Elementary, Oakton Elementary and Marshall Road Elementary. Special education programs at those schools as well as Flint Hill Elementary, Wolftrap Elementary and Louise Archer Elementary could also be affected.

If a later start time is adopted, Madison will be the first high school in Fairfax County to change the start time successfully. Other school districts have their high schools starting after 8 a.m. Arlington County high schools begin at 8:15 a.m., Loudoun County high schools begin at 8:45 a.m., and Alexandria schools have 9th graders starting at 8:40 a.m. and other high schoolers starting at 8:15 a.m.

While teen sleep research will play an important factor in changing Madison's start time, other factors will also be involved in deciding whether to alter the time. Commuting, traffic concerns along Vale Rd. and Flint Hill Rd., childcare and scheduling athletics' practices were among some issues raised at the recent community meeting. Another issue, although indirect, is the question of whether students have too much on their plate.

"What we do at Madison will have national significance," said school board member Stu Gibson at Monday's meeting. "A lot of people are watching us."

BY STARTING LATER, students and parents advocating for the change say students will be able to sleep longer and at times more attune to their internal rhythms. When Elena Coyle passed out her seven-question survey to approximately 1,000 students last year, she discovered that 85 percent of students admitted to falling asleep in class. Another 75 percent favored a later start time. For those who didn't, namely those on sports' teams, she found their attitudes changed if they could be reassured that their practices wouldn't get pushed back.

Elena suggested that the 50 minutes between when school ends at 2:10 p.m. and practice begins at 3 p.m. be moved. The 50 minutes, for student conferences with teachers, could be moved to the morning instead. She pointed out that when Fairfax County added 30 minutes to the school day to make up for snow days, the athletic teams got by.

"You can be ready for practice in five minutes," Elena said.

While Elena polled the students, her mother Maria polled other parents. She found that overwhelming number of parents supported a later start time.

"My sense was that it was a pretty widespread feeling that the kids were perpetually tired," Coyle said.

The Coyles forwarded their findings to Gibson, while several parents formed a Healthier Start Times Committee within Madison's Parent-Student-Teacher Association (PTSA).

Indeed, several committee members spoke in favor of the proposal at Monday's meeting.

"We, like so many other high school parents, are sick and tired of seeking our kids sick and tired," said Nancy Convy, committee co-chair. "You can lead a teen to bed, but you cannot make them sleep."

Several parents with elementary school children welcomed the idea of starting later as well. For them, starting school earlier would mean that some parents wouldn't have to pay for the childcare they're shelling out as they go to work.

"It sounds like a really good idea...From my perspective, as a working parent, the elementary start time is kind of late," said Janet Weiner, a Flint Hill Elementary parent.

ALTHOUGH SOME PARENTS accepted the proposal wholeheartedly, others had reservations. Melanie Garvey, a parent at Wolftrap Elementary, had attended the meeting to gauge whether the later start time would affect her. While the proposal wouldn't affect her directly, she said two concerns resonated during Monday's meeting: traffic and whether high school students should be driving while elementary school students are walking to school.

"People liked the idea, but they were wondering if they studied the issues of childcare, safety and transportation," Garvey said.

Traffic concerns arose because the later start time could impact Vale Rd. and Flint Hill Rd. Three other schools-- Louise Archer Elementary, Flint Hill Elementary, and the school at St. Mark Catholic Church that's scheduled to open late August 2003--may have start times close to when Madison would begin school as well.

"Because I live so close to James Madison, I'm very concerned about the traffic on Flint Hill Road," said Marie Ann Leyko, who attended Monday's meeting. Leyko said she didn't oppose moving the start time, but wanted to know what would be done about speeding and the number of students who do take buses to Madison. "We wait on Flint Hill Road for that bus, and our neighborhood right now is under a traffic calming study."

Indeed, Madison principal Mark Merrell said traffic and commuting issues are both a pro and con among faculty at the school. In his polling of teachers, he found a 50-50 split among those who approved a later start time and those who didn't. While the start time would benefit those teachers living as far away as Winchester, Va. and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., a later start time would also mean teachers and students would be out during peak commuter hours.

"I think there are some strong arguments on both sides," Merrell said.

WHILE COMMUTING, traffic and childcare issues need to be worked out, a nagging concern among some parents was also whether students have too much on their plate--too much homework for Advanced Placement classes or too many extracurriculars or time spent practicing sports. When parents and other concerned residents split up into small groups to discuss the proposal further during Monday's meeting, Leyko found that in her group, people were open to change, but speculated whether discussion would open bigger issues down the road.

"What we all felt was that this was the tip of the iceberg," Leyko said.

Since the proposal won't go into affect until Sept. 2004, school PTSAs, as well as school administrators and athletic directors, will have time to hash out how they could adapt to such a change.

"At lease people are going to have time to consider," Garvey said.