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Later School Start Time Advocates Hope For Change As District Task Force Starts Work

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A student asleep after class.

Should Seattle schools adjust their start times to let middle- and high school students get more sleep?

It's a riddle that's vexed Seattle Public Schools for the last six years, and a 30-member district task force kicked off a months-long process Thursday night of solving it.

Some parents and sleep experts have lobbied district leaders to let the district's schools, most of which currently start classes at 7:50 a.m., begin their school days at a later hour. One way to accommodate that change, they say, is for elementary schools, which currently begin their days at either 8:40 or 9:30 a.m., to start classes earlier.

Large Task Force, Large Task

The logistics of such a flip-flop would be complicated, raising huge questions about transportation, after-school activities and 37 other strategic priorities district officials say a bell times change might impact. One district estimate pegs the cost of staff time, materials and community outreach for the task force's work alone at upwards of $250,000.

The earliest bell times could change is the 2016-2017 school year, and that's if school board members can vote on proposed changes by November 2015. In order to meet that deadline, the Bell Times Analysis Task Force has until June to deliver recommendations to interim superintendent Larry Nyland.

“If our task force can come to consensus, that’s fabulous," assistant superintendent Pegi McEvoy told the 27 task force members present Thursday night. "If they can’t, our superintendent also wants to hear dissenting opinions.”

'I Don't Have The Same Stars In My Eyes'

The start times issue itself has been a source of tension, according to at least one Seattle School Board member.

Before the July vote that created the task force, board member Stephan Blanford said he felt fellow board members had been too strident in their advocacy for changing bell times behind closed doors. Without naming names, he accused fellow board members of "bullying behavior that cows the staff." Others on the board disagreed with Blanford's characterization, but board member Sherry Carr said she saw some of the same behavior.

"I don’t have the same stars in my eyes about the great possibilities that [changing start times] will close our achievement gap. I think it’s going to have a positive impact," Carr said during the July 1 meeting.

What's The Impact Of Changing Bell Times?

"I guess I’m not totally buying into the whole silver bullet of what this will do," Carr went on. "But I do recognize from feedback from multiple families… that we’re just not in a place with our start times that simply don’t fit with students and their bio-rhythms."

Cindy Jatul — a member of the task force, a Roosevelt High School teacher, and leader of a group that advocates for later start times — says changing start times can't completely close the gap in academic achievement between rich and poor students. But Jatul says poor students are often the biggest beneficiaries of later start times.

"This change will have a significant impact on the gap," Jatul said, "because it has in other districts that have made the change. When you go and look at the research, the students who are most disadvantaged are the ones that have the best outcomes after the change is made in terms of reading and math scores, better attendance [and] less tardiness."

In the past, assistant superintendent McEvoy says bell times have been set based on what was "functional for adults in the system." She says the task force's work is about changing that mindset.

"Sometimes, transportation has driven the bell times," said McEvoy. "We want to make sure student health drives the bell times and then transportation is brought in to support what is needed for our families and students."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.