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Start times for Bellingham elementary, high school students changing

Squalicum High School campus security monitor Russ Robbinson, center, says goodbye to students Tyler Nguyen, left, Jase Barrett and Garrett Sorensen at the end of the school day, Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Starting in fall 2017, Bellingham high schools will start at 8:30 a.m. instead of 7:45 a.m.
Squalicum High School campus security monitor Russ Robbinson, center, says goodbye to students Tyler Nguyen, left, Jase Barrett and Garrett Sorensen at the end of the school day, Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Starting in fall 2017, Bellingham high schools will start at 8:30 a.m. instead of 7:45 a.m. pdwyer@bellinghamherald.com

Start times for elementary and high school students in Bellingham public schools will change starting in fall 2017.

However, middle school students will stay on the same schedule, the Bellingham School District announced Wednesday, March 23.

Most students also will get out of school at different times as a result of the changes.

The school district has about 11,000 students.

The new schedules will be:

▪ Elementary schools will start 30 minutes sooner at 8 a.m. and end at 2:30 p.m. That’s compared to 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. currently.

▪ High schools will start 45 minutes later at 8:30 a.m. and end at 3:15 p.m. That’s compared to 7:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. now.

▪ Middle schools will stay on the same schedule of 9:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.

“It gives people a lot of time to figure out how to adjust as needed,” Superintendent Greg Baker said of the 2017 start date. “It’s important that we bring people along in conversations because these changes impact their lives and how they get their kids to school and home.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that middle and high school classes should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., because studies have determined sleep cycles shift up to two hours later during puberty.

The changes meet two goals, Baker said.

One, and the main reason, is to better match high school students’ natural sleep cycles, based on pediatricians’ recommendations.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is one of the groups leading a national charge for a later start to school, saying teens are chronically sleep-deprived and that middle and high school classes should begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to help them get enough sleep. The association and medical studies have determined sleep cycles shift up to two hours later during puberty.

Early start times also are linked to lower overall grades, increased obesity and depression, and more car crashes from sleepy students driving.

About 40 percent of high schools in the U.S. had start times before 8 a.m. and only 15 percent started at 8:30 a.m. or later, the American Academy of Pediatrics said in August 2014, when it issued its recommendation for later start times.

The median middle school start time was 8 a.m., the academy said at the time, and more than 20 percent of middle schools start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier.

The second reason for the schedule change, Baker said, was to allow flexibility for more electives and course offerings at the high school level, which is needed given increasing graduation requirements.

Toward that end, the district is adding 15 minutes to the day for high school students, for a total of six hours and 45 minutes. Officials had wanted to add 30 minutes but scaled it back after parents and students told them that they didn’t want school getting out so late.

The additional 15 minutes also will help when the high school class schedule is changed. One option that has been discussed is for students to take eight total classes, with four of them each day. This would increase focused instruction time and let students take advantage of more class offerings. What that will look like should be announced in April and is also expected to start in 2017.

This isn’t the first time the district has looked at changing students’ schedules.

Baker has said the district has been working on pushing back start times for the higher grades for more than three years.

A proposal given to parents and students last spring received mixed reviews. One of the main sticking points was a 7:45 a.m. proposed start time for elementary school students that many parents thought was too early. The district withdrew that plan; officials have spent the last year altering it in response to comments from parents.

“I appreciate their input. They helped craft this,” Baker said. “They’ve had a strong voice in this.”

Parents’ initial reactions to the changes for fall 2017 were mixed, as shown by their comments on Baker’s blog.

Some parents of high school students thanked him for the later start times. While Baker said that elementary school kids are usually the ones up the earliest, some parents of elementary school children said they already have a hard time getting their kids up and out the door for the current 8:30 a.m. start to their school days. Others said they wouldn’t be able to afford the additional child-care costs caused by the change.

Baker said he met with high school students about the changes, and he heard their concerns about getting out later in the day and the impact on athletics, homework, jobs and being able to watch their siblings.

“This will affect all that. We have a solution to some of those,” he said.

District officials are working with YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club to expand options for care before and after school.

The changes will require the school district to buy more buses and hire more staff, and Baker said the school district is considering going to voters with a transportation levy.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Learn more

The Bellingham School District will have an informational meeting about changes to start and end times for elementary and high schools from 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, in the cafeteria of Whatcom Middle School, 810 Halleck St. in Bellingham.

Additional information also is at bellinghamschools.org.

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