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Seattle's Later School Start Time Plan Gets A Wakeup Call

Kyle Stokes
A Seattle school bus sits outside the district office in the SoDo neighborhood. Transportation costs are one consideration for a district task force studying whether to shuffle start times to allow middle- and high schoolers to get more sleep.

A task force is getting ready to make a formal recommendation for whether Seattle Public Schools can shuffle their bell times to let middle- and high schoolers get more sleep — and if they can, present options on how to make the change.

But some members of the task force aren't happy. Advocates who've pushed for years for earlier start times for secondary students say they're concerned district officials have taken the best plan off the table prematurely, and have instead been shopping inferior options around for public comment and review.

The Seattle Public Schools staffer overseeing the work of the 30-member Bell Times Analysis Task Force says there was nothing premature about it at all: the option the advocates prefer is simply too expensive, and officials nixed it in favor of solutions the district could realistically afford.

Yet the advocates, many aligned with the group Start School Later Seattle, say they haven't seen these cost estimates on paper. They're concerned district officials aren't adequately representing the work of the 30-member Bell Times Analysis Task Force to the public.

"It's a huge decision. It impacts 52,000 kids. It needs to be done right," said task force member Dianne Casper, who's also a board member for the Seattle Council PTSA. "We're calling foul at this point because the evidence keeps growing that the facts aren't being presented fairly — and they need to be, it's important."

The Option Not On The Table

It may seem like a mundane proposition to flip-flop bell times for middle and high schools, most of which currently let in around 7:50 a.m., with later-starting elementary schools. But such a switch raises complicated and costly questions — for extracurricular activities, for staff time and, critically, for the district's $33.4 million transportation budget.

In late February, task force members ranked eight bell schedule options — including the option of leaving start- and end times unchanged, according to Start School Later Seattle co-chair Cindy Jatul, who's also a teacher at Roosevelt High School.

According to task force documents provided to KPLU, the "two-tiered option" emerged as a clear favorite: all K-8, middle- and high school classes would push back their start and end times to 8:50 a.m. and 3:20 p.m., respectively, while bell times at elementary schools would be earlier: 8 a.m. and 2:10 p.m., respectively.

"If you mention two tiers, people are very enthusiastic," Casper said.

"It's a very family-friendly option," she added, "and it also supports student learning by having times that align with kids' natural biological rhythms as they mature, basically having elementary go somewhat earlier and then high school go somewhat later — which, as any parent knows, is how kids tend to want to wake up in the morning."

But district officials say that option was simply too expensive. Sam Merkert, a Seattle Public Schools project manager overseeing the task force's work, said estimates from the district's transportation department found the two-tiered option would cost somewhere between $16 million and $20 million to implement — an estimate Jatul and Casper dispute.

"Any option, it'd be great if it didn't cost money — but the district has finite resources," Merkert said.

Because of the cost, in community meetings and public surveys, the district didn't include the two-tiered system as an option.

The Flip, The Extension, The Stand-Pat

Instead, superintendent Larry Nyland's operations team picked three other options to present in surveys and public meetings. They were less popular with the task force, but they also would be far less-costly to implement.

The first option is known as the "modified flip":

  • Most elementary schools would start earlier, at 8:00 a.m., and let out around 2:10 p.m. Some others would start at 8:50 a.m. and let out at 3:00 p.m.
  • High schools would start later, at 8:50 a.m., and let out at 3:20.
  • Middle and K-8 schools would start at 9:40 a.m and let out around 4:10.

The second option would leave most elementary, middle and K-8 school bell times mostly as they were. But it would extend the high school day, giving students the option of arriving either around 7:50 a.m. — as they do now — or later, at 8:40 a.m. Their arrival time would determine whether they leave school at 2:20 p.m. or 3:10 p.m.
The third option: no change at all.

Jatul and Casper say the task force gave chilly receptions to the second and third options. In the cumulative rankings, "no change" was the task force's fifth choice. The extended high school day option was its eighth choice — dead last.

But they'd cost less than the two-tiered system to implement, according to district estimates on both the extended high school day ($6.4 million) and "modified flip" options ($2.9 million).

While Jatul and Casper both say the "modified flip" — the task force's third choice — is the best choice the district presents in the public surveys, they say it falls short in key areas.

"It does pretty well for elementary students and high school students, but K-8 [students] definitely get a bad deal on this one," Casper said. "They would have nine years of starting school at 9:40 in the morning, which for the first six years, is pretty biologically inappropriate."

Difficult Process

Addressing bell times has proven to be a sensitive issue at the district office, generating public protest and exposing apparent frictions between school board members and central office staff.

"I was at quite a few meetings over the past year where staff did not really seem to want to change bell times, that staff was perfectly happy with the bell times," Casper said.

But Merkert said advocates' charges that the district was withholding information were themselves unfair, saying the task force was given clear parameters for the scope of their work: namely, to deliver a recommendation to the superintendent, analyze available sleep research and study whether bell time changes were feasible.

"Certain task force members maybe have decided that they didn't particularly like that scope, and they wanted to expand on the scope, but the scope was agreed to when we first set up the meetings. We provide all the information necessary, we've been very transparent," Merkert said.

The task force is set to deliver a recommendation to Superintendent Nyland in June. Nyland will present his own recommendation to the school board next fall, after which board members could vote on whether to change bell times for the 2016-17 school year. 

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