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Starting Too Soon?

FCSB is hiring a consultant to study possible changes to bus schedules.

Members of the Fairfax County Board of Education met with the McLean Citizens Association’s education and youth committee Tuesday to discuss the possibility of later start times for high school students.

Currently, high school students in Fairfax County begin school at 7:20 a.m., a time that may be dangerous to their attention spans, their health and their ability to learn.

“It’s an issue that’s a concern for many people,” said Ed Saperstein, chairman of the committee. “The idea tonight is to have a brainstorming session to see if there is any possible way we can fix this situation.”

In order for students to arrive at school at 7:20 a.m., many are waking up between 5 o’clock and 5:30 a.m., which severely restricts the amount of time available for sleeping, said Mike Clancy, a member of the committee and parent of a high school student.

“Our students are averaging between six-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half hours of sleep, which can lead to sleep deprivation,” he said, which can lead to problems concentrating and staying awake in school and tension at home as well.

“The natural time to fall asleep for adolescents is around 11 p.m., and telling them to go to sleep sooner doesn’t work, given their natural sleep cycle,” Clancy said.

Additionally, students who sleep a little later may skip breakfast, leading to poor nutrition throughout the day. “Walk into McLean High School on any given morning and you’ll see a lot of kids with a cup of coffee, which is not the best breakfast for them,” he said.

Other school districts in the region, including Loudoun and Arlington Counties, have restructured their school start times to allow for students to sleep a little later and still have a full school day.

“Fairfax County is lagging behind,” Clancy said. “Schools that start later to provide for an extra hour of sleep show improved attendance and academic performance. Kids are more positive and engaged in school activities.”

THE FAIRFAX COUNTY Board of Education conducted a study in 1998 that found many of the same results and suggested that a later start time may be beneficial, but nothing has yet changed.

One of the prohibitive factors holding up a change may be the cost of extra buses.

Currently, the Fairfax County school bus system has a bell curve for dropping students off at schools, staggering departure and arrival times so high school students arrive at 7:20 a.m., elementary school students arrive by 9 a.m., and middle school students fall in between. If any adjustment was made to that schedule, there would be a one-time cost of additional buses and a few month’s worth of adjustments to the bus schedule to work out any glitches that may be hit along the way, according to Janie Strauss, the Dranesville District representative to the Board of Education.

“We have 800 general education buses and 350 special education buses in the county that serve 185 schools,” said Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent of the transportation department for Fairfax County schools. Of those 185 schools, 155 of them bring in students from outside their boundaries for gifted and talented programs, special education or other needs, he said.

High school students are the only ones that can be left at the school prior to the beginning of the school day, he said. Elementary and middle school students are not allowed into their respective buildings unsupervised, which further complicates the busing situation.

“Our largest reason for the current bus schedule is that, by having the first drop-offs at a little after 7 a.m. and the last ones no later than 9 a.m., we’re done before rush hour traffic hits,” Tistadt said. “Parents and students don’t like it, but the administration can’t do anything about it.”

ANY CHANGES to the schedule may prolong the school day for some students or put younger children at the bus stop when it’s still dark during the winter, he said. “If we minimize the number of new buses needed, to keep the financial impact as low as possible for the school district, the latest opening would be somewhere around 10 a.m.,” he said.

If middle school students were to begin school at 7:20 a.m. and their scheduled simply flip-flopped with the high schoolers, the benefits wouldn’t be that great. “They’re still teenagers and need their sleep too,” he said.

“We’ve been debating this issue since 1989,” Strauss said. “Once you attempt to move the bus schedule more than eight or nine minutes either way, you start to cut into the schedule for other bus runs.”

The large area covered by the school district makes it difficult to include all students and all buses within a precise window of time for school to begin, so the only uniform bell time is for high school students, she said. Money has been allocated in the current school budget to hire a consultant to study the bus schedules and try to determine if there is a better solution, she said.

“If we shift the start time to 10 a.m., the after-school programs won’t start until 3 p.m.,” Strauss said. “We must provide the opportunity for our kids to participate in after-school activities, but we also need to provide transportation.”

The entire community has become accustomed to the 7:20 a.m. start time, Tistadt said. “If you flip it around in any way, there will be a very vocal number of people in opposition to this, no matter who it’s adjusted.”

Any information found by a consultant would be ready by the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year, Strauss said. “If you polled the community, 90 percent of people would like to change the start time for high school students. It’s the issue of what we would have to do to change the time that we don’t know. We need to know our options, the costs and what you have to give up for it,” she said.

The school board cannot make a decision “if the community is 100 percent against a change,” she said. “If there is a change of lifestyle or a cost involved, we need to have community support. Ideally, if there is a change that can be made, we could have it in place by the start of the 2006-2007 school year.”