Should high school start later? Wake County schools wants your thoughts on new start times

CARY, NC — The Wake County Public School System is taking another step exploring later high school start times and end times and earlier elementary school start times and end times.

The district will host town halls and focus groups later this fall and will soon send out a survey soliciting feedback. No changes would be made until the 2024-25 school year, at the earliest.

The switch is grounded in research on natural sleep rhythms and potential academic implications. But the likely wide-reaching impact has kept the school system from moving quickly toward making a change.

“We know that in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that school set bell schedules no earlier than 8:30 am to improve the physical, mental health, safety and academic achievement of older students,” said Wake County Public Schools Chief Academic Advancement Officer Dr. Edward McFarland.

A change could affect parents’ schedules, students’ after-school jobs and extracurricular activities, employees’ second jobs and local businesses’ foot traffic.

The impact, even though the idea isn’t new, weighed on school Board Member Karen Carter during a student achievement committee meeting Monday, when the district proposed gathering the feedback.

“I’m shocked I guess,” she said, after looking at how school start and end times could change. “Some of our staff would then not be able to work their second jobs.”

That would affect employees’ child care, and it would affect students who have after-school jobs or who are involved in extracurricular activities, which Carter noted keeps them engaged in school.

The district has drawn up an example change: Swapping elementary school and high school start times. Currently, high schools start at 7:25 am, ending at 2:20 pm, and most elementary schools start at 9:15 am, ending at 3:45 pm The swap would result in high schools running from 9:15 am to 4 :10 pm, and elementary schools would run from 7:30 am to 2 pm McFarland said the example is not a recommendation. The district didn’t discuss making changes to middle schools.

“With the onset of puberty, adolescent nocturnal melatonin production which aids in helping them fall asleep is delayed by several hours,” McFarland said. “This natural shift in their circadian rhythm makes it more difficult to fall asleep before 11 pm and more difficult to wake up prior to 8 am”

The district will consider the impact of potential changes on parents’ schedules, on school employees who work two jobs, on before-school and after-school care providers and on after-school activities, according to the presentation Monday. They’ll reach out to parents, students, staff, care providers, businesses and community organizations for feedback. The district will also talk to school systems that have made similar changes. Some board members said Monday they wanted to know more about the impact of school system-wide changes.

The survey, focus groups and town hall-style meetings will run from October through December. No dates have yet been set for the town halls.

The school board will hear the results of the feedback in February and work on a plan for new bell schedules in March. The board would vote in April on a new bell schedule for two years from now.

The disconnect between school start times and research is “a symptom of a bigger problem,” school Board Member Jim Martin said.

Martin said he doesn’t know anybody who whose schedule allows them to easily pick up and drop off students at school currently and suspected that wouldn’t change if school hours were shifted. Schools were initially set up when more families had a stay-at-home parent, rather than two working parents, he said.

“I don’t believe modern school systems have adapted to the modern reality,” Martin said.

Several years ago, Durham Public Schools started elementary schools earlier and high schools later, but a majority of parents and staff didn’t favor the change a year after it occurred, McFarland said. The district has not reversed the change.

The Durham school system had problems providing after-school care, said Wake school Board Member Heather Scott.

Board Member Monika Johnson-Hostler said the district must ask parents and guardians how the changes would affect what they need from the school system, including child care. Johnson-Hostler also cautioned assuming that high school students would keep their current bed time if school started later. They may only end up staying up later, she said, and they may admit it, if asked.

McFarland said students would be a key source of feedback.

The Wake County Public School System began studying the potential physical and academic impacts of swapping high school and elementary school bell schedules nearly two years ago.

The Wake County Public School System began studying the potential physical and academic impacts of swapping high school and elementary school bell schedules nearly two years ago.

That included studying five Wake County high schools with different start times. The schools that started earlier had worse attendance issues, the district reported.

Numerous studies have shown sleep deprivation among high school students, as the onset of puberty pushes back the times in which teenagers become tired and, subsequently, are most comfortable waking up. Other studies have shown that lack of sleep can be consequential for school performance and even attendance.

According to studies presented by the district to school board members, students at high schools that start the day later have higher grades and test scores, better memory function and improved physical and mental health.

Martin suggested the district could examine how to better target solutions toward sets of students more likely to be tardy or have other issues, rather than doing a district-wide change in bell schedules. He said the research has its limits, because it doesn’t account for all of the other events that would be triggered by changes in school schedule.

Board Member Chris Heagarty argued many students get up early for the school bus and would continue to do so, particularly as the district struggles to hire bus drivers and dropped the number of routes offered.

Superintendent Cathy Moore said a change would in some cases result in a shifting of problems, rather than a full solution. Later start times may help students who are often tardy or absent at the beginning of the day, though it may mean some student-athletes would leave school earlier than usual to attend a competition.

Likewise, earlier start times won’t get rid of early bus rides, Moore said. “Somebody will be at a bus stop in the dark,” she said.

School Board Chairwoman Lindsay Mahaffey noted that not all school athletic fields have lights for outdoor practices or competition.

“I think we need to take a look at equity in our facilities,” Mahaffey said.