Bellingham School District decides against schedule change

The Bellingham School District will have to go back to the drawing board after deciding not to implement a proposal that would have increased the length of school days at middle and high schools by half an hour.

District Superintendent Greg Baker announced the decision in a letter to parents posted online Thursday, March 19.

The district sought parent and student opinion on a proposed schedule change: High school start times would have moved to 8:15 a.m, half an hour later than the current start time. Middle schools would have started 15 minutes earlier than currently, and elementary schools 45 minutes earlier than the current schedule, with a proposed time of 7:45 a.m.

The high school and middle school days would have been seven hours long, allowing for seven periods in a day and giving students more opportunities to earn credit. The state will require the graduating class of 2019 to earn 24 credits, one more credit than the district currently requires for graduation.

The changes would not have taken effect until the 2016-17 school year.

Baker said the main reason the district decided against the proposal was because parents of elementary school students strongly opposed the earlier start time.

“The elementary start time, for many families, just didn’t seem worth it,” Baker said.

He said most parents were supportive of the later start times for high school students. He cited a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics that called for more sleep time for teenagers.

For example, Mark Greenberg, a parent of an eighth-grader at Kulshan Middle School, said he supported the change because his daughter is not ready to fall asleep until 11 p.m. As his daughter has gotten older, Greenberg said waking her up has become more difficult, and she tends to learn better later in the day. He was happy the district was considering scientific recommendations in the proposal.

“The strongest argument is: When are kids best able to learn?” Greenberg said.

Yet some students expressed concern about the amount of homework that comes with a seven-period day, Baker said. Since the day would end later, after-school activities also would be later in the day, which would leave less time for a potentially higher volume of homework.

Virginia Ramos, through a Spanish interpreter, said this was a concern for her son Julio, a high school sophomore. Since Julio is involved in extracurricular activities such as orchestra, track and choir, the later end time would have made it harder for students like him to finish homework at night, she said.

Yet Ramos still favored the later start time for teenagers. She said Julio often has a hard time waking up early in the morning. Her other son in elementary school is an early riser and would have been fine with the earlier start times.

Ramos said most of the parents she talked to supported the proposal.

But Baker said it became clear the district needed to keep looking for solutions after he spoke with the community.

“There is no perfect start and end time that will meet the needs of every family,” Baker said. “There was just enough concern that we’ve got to keep working at it.”

The schedule would have required eight more school buses, at a cost of $125,000 each, and at least 40 new staff, costing at least $4 million, according to the district. Baker said the elementary school times would have been earlier under the proposal because it minimized the number of school buses used. Other ideas considered would have required 30 or more new buses.

The district will look for ways to increase credit opportunities and offer more sleep time to high school students in the future, Baker said. This may include applying for a waiver that would delay the 24-credit requirement from being implemented until 2021.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” Baker said. “We’ll just keep wrestling with it.”