Some Western Pa. schools move to later starts for students

September 3, 2018

Some local districts have followed through on efforts to evaluate and implement later school start times heading into the new school year.

Burrell High School, which serves about 570 students, shifted start times from 7:45 a.m. to 8:10 to give students an extra 25 minutes in the morning.

“The research indicates adolescents need more rest,” said Principal John Boylan. Coupled with the fact that teachers need more time for lesson planning and collaborating with each other, he expects the change in start times to pay off.

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to ensure students get enough sleep -- 8½ to 9½ hours each night, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A Tribune-Review survey last fall of 34 high schools in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties found that many started classes before 8:30 a.m., some as early as 7 a.m. Districts cited transportation needs at the lower grades and conflicts with extracurricular activities, such as athletics and clubs, as the reason for starting early. Over the previous school year, several school districts considered shifting start times this fall but grappled with logistical challenges -- the cost of rerouting or adding buses, for example -- to make it happen.

In order to accommodate later starts, Burrell eliminated homeroom -- a period students attending classes at the career and technical education center off campus would often miss -- and reduced the time between classes from four to three minutes. The 2:42 p.m. dismissal time will not change.

Announcements for students and information being sent home to parents will be distributed during fourth period, when all students are in the building, Boylan said.

Teachers will continue to report early but will have more time to collaborate and prepare before the first period bell rings.

“We’ve really seen some growth already,” he said. Students whose teachers have already embraced a more collaborative approach to teaching have started to demonstrate growth on state test scores, Boylan said.

Also among those starting later this year are schools in the Woodland Hills School District, which had some of the earliest start times in the region last year. High school students reported at 7 a.m. and boarded buses by 6:05 a.m. This year, students in grades seven through 12 will start class at 7:20 a.m.

Though the North Allegheny School District assessed start times last year, the school board tabled the plan in January in order to explore how much the changes could cost the district.

The high school start time would have moved from 7:25 a.m. to 8 a.m. A survey conducted by the district, which included 2,509 parent responses, showed that 80 percent of parents were in favor of later start times. Of the 1,351 students who responded, 63 percent said that they preferred a later start time while 31 percent were happy with current start times.

“We are still discussing school start times at North Allegheny,” spokesperson Emily Schaffer said.

Meanwhile, the Hempfield Area School District moved high school start times up by 10 minutes.

Last year, high school students reported to school at 7:35 a.m. for a mandatory activity period. The first academic class period started at 8:25 a.m., and students were dismissed at 2:40 p.m.

This year, students will start their first academic class period at 7:25 a.m., and the activity period will be moved to later in the morning. Dismissal will be at 2:45 p.m.

“The arrival time is not a departure from the past as our earlier buses at the high school have always arrived around this same time,” Assistant Superintendent Mark Gross said. “Arrival times will not change significantly for those taking district-provided transportation.”

The changes were made in order to help students fit elective classes into their schedules or fulfill graduation requirements sooner. Seniors who are already meeting graduation requirements will be allowed to apply to leave school earlier to take college courses, attend internships or work.

High School Principal Kathleen Charlton said that some seniors have already applied for early dismissal, though an exact number was not immediately available. She did acknowledge that not all students will be able to take advantage of the option because they don’t have transportation.

“Without a car, you can’t do that,” she said, adding that there are few places where students are likely to work within walking distance of the high school. “I wish we had a better option for all of the kids.”

Students will feel the impact of the schedule changes the most during lunch periods, which will no longer be as crowded, Charlton said. Students will be more evenly distributed across lunch periods, giving them more time to go through the cafeteria line.

“I think that’s the biggest advantage of all of this,” Charlton said.

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