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School board was wise to wait

Even though it is totally against my nature, I wish to publicly laud the Spokane Public Schools board for its recent decision to delay a resolution on school start times.

For context, the state is mandating a certain number of instructional hours (1,000 per year for grades 1-8 and 1,080 for grades 9-12), and the Spokane district is presently not in compliance with regards to our elementary schools. According to the new law, our district’s elementary schools are shorting our children 30 minutes every day of the school year.

However, the law is not to take effect until the 2015-16 school year. Back in March, though, our school board decided to get ahead by making elementary schools begin classes 30 minutes earlier (8:30 a.m., rather than 9 a.m.) for the 2014-15 school year. Although such a decision seemed like an easy fix, it would have had quite a domino effect.

In fact, the Spokane Education Association vociferously balked at this rushed resolution. The reason: If 30 minutes were being added to every elementary school teacher’s schedule in the district, then some bargaining had to take place, and some questions had to be answered. The five-person board was, quite simply, circumventing the agreed-upon process by dictating the rules rather than working collaboratively with those of us who would have to follow the new rules.

And here’s where my public praise comes in. The board recanted and decided to go back to the drawing board with the SEA’s Joint Task Force. To me, this was a public relations win for both sides.

More importantly, it can be a practical win for the students – if the task force does its research and comes to a data-driven decision.

My problem, all along, was never the 30 extra minutes of instructional time for elementary students. I’m both a teacher and a parent; I’m on board for more learning. Always. Rather, my major concern with the board’s initial decision was how it affected high school students, the ones with the most at stake.

The main domino effect was based on the bus schedules. If the buses were now going to have to pick up elementary students 30 minutes earlier, then those buses would have to be available earlier. So, the far-too-expedient decision was to have high schoolers begin their days at 7:50 a.m., even earlier than they already do.

Now, maybe the old-schoolers out there don’t see a problem with starting school 10 minutes earlier because “that’s how it used to be.” Such an appeal to tradition, however, is thoroughly fallacious in nature, especially when contemporary research about the nature of adolescent brains is examined closely.

All of the current research states that a teenager’s brain simply works differently (as if I need to tell that to parents of teenagers, right?). And one of the main differences has to do with sleep – both the amount and the patterns. According to the National Sleep Foundation, (1) “teens need about 9 ¼ hours of sleep each night to function best,” but only 15 percent report getting even 8 ½ hours; and (2) “biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for both sleeping and waking during adolescence, meaning it is natural not to be able to fall asleep before 11 p.m.” Putting those two facts together and doing the math would mean that teenagers shouldn’t even be waking up before 8 a.m., much less starting school then.

The scientifically researched consequences are even more vital to understand: Not getting enough sleep “limits [one’s] ability to learn, listen, concentrate and solve problems” – the very essence of school itself!

Thus, if both the board and the SEA are truly concerned about our teenagers doing better in school, literally the only logical decision would be to follow the lead of dozens of districts across the country (all of which, by the way, have reported higher test scores, lower absenteeism, and fewer behavioral issues) and to make high school start times later.

I realize that there are other issues that must be considered (e.g., bus schedules, athletic schedules, cafeteria workers’ schedules, etc.), but the one overarching criterion that must dominate this conversation is how school start times will affect our students.

Everything else is either superfluous or negotiable.

Robert Archer has been a high school English teacher for 18 years.  He will begin his eighth year at Shadle Park High School in September.


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