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Much ado about 20 early morning minutes

  • Written by Don Mann
A packed house made for a livelier-than-usual Northshore School District board meeting last Tuesday, with attendees there for one of two hot-button issues: earlier school start times, and allowing ninth grade basketballers to play at the high school level.

Extensive public comment was fairly split on the items, and included members of Parent Advocates for a Later Start (PALS) which for about five years has been trying to convince the district to roll back its 7:10 a.m. high school starting time for the benefit of the mental, physical and emotional health of the teenagers. PALS, which has provided ample scientific data that inadequate sleep leads to poorer academic performance, recently presented the board with a petition with over 1,500 signatures.

The advocacy group is asking for 20 extra morning minutes to jump start the secondary school kids, with no change requested for the 9:05 a.m. elementary school start.

It sounds like a reasonable request, but there are hidden complications.NSD Superintendent Larry Francois, who with school board directors Todd Banks and Janet Quinn met with PALS representatives the night before, explained: “We all share a common belief that a 7:10 start time is far from ideal. Where there may be differences are in our perceived ability to achieve a later start time by adjusting transportation services without negatively impacting the menu of services we currently task our transportation system to provide, and whether increasing expenditures to enable a later start time is the best use of our limited funding.”

The long and the short of it is that rolling back start times, while maintaining popular before-school music programs, will require more buses and more bus drivers, meaning more dollars.

Francois said the current start time was not an independent function of the district’s transportation department, but rather the result of a directive by the board in 2006 to minimize operational costs in order to maximize resources for classroom instruction.

“Spending more on transportation to enable a later start time is a policy and priority decision that the board must ultimately resolve,” Francois said. “It’s not strictly a transportation issue. Our priority, absent a revised directive by the board, is to maintain our current menu of transportation services at the lowest possible cost.”

To that end, the PALS people requested the board run two “Versatrans” studies to determine precisely the cost of the proposed time adjustment. Versatrans is a software product designed to achieve solutions related to student transportation needs, efficient bus route building, field trip scheduling and bus fleet management.

School board president Julia Lacey said she didn’t think it was a transportation issue as much as a (before-school) program issue. “The buses are doing what we ask them to do because we put a priority on programs. But how much do we value the programs that are impacting our schedule?”

Director Dawn McCravey said it was not so much a question of programs or transportation, but whether or not the board would heed the call “to provide this for the students so they have a better chance in school.”

Her comment was met with resounding applause from the biased gallery, and the board later voted unanimously to approve the PALS request.

Said Banks: “We’ve heard from 1,500 people and it deserves a response.”

PALS official Karen Van Til, who was not in attendance, later answered a question posed by the Woodinville Weekly: Are you satisfied with the school board’s response and hopeful for a favorable result?

Like the advocate she is, she began with the following: “The 7:10 a.m. high school start time in NSD is the earliest of any of our demographically similar districts in the region. Current scientific research shows that teens need more sleep than present school start times allow. School districts across the nation who have made start times later have seen an increase in student GPAs, test scores, attendance, driving safety, mood/depression, and aggression levels. School districts that have made the change have all seen the benefits and PALS is hopeful NSD will soon see the same benefits. The Washington State PTSA, as well as Randy Dorn, Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, have both stated their support of later start times that meet the optimum health requirements for sleep needs.”

Then she answered the question.“Yes, we are satisfied and pleased that the board voted to run the models for a later start, as we have been asking for these to be run since November 2010. We are hopeful that the models will show a 7:30 a.m. start can be achieved. Further, if these models do have favorable results, we hope that NSD will implement them for the coming 21012-13 school year.”

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