Parents who attended a recent Anne Arundel Board of Education meeting said they support a later starting time for the Maryland school system.
Prismatic Services, a consulting firm, recently recommended roughly two dozen transportation-related changes for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, including two recommendations for changing start times.
One recommendation would move the start time for elementary students to 8 a.m. and the start time for middle and high school students to 9 a.m. The other would have elementary schools starting at 7:30 a.m., high schools at 8:15 a.m. and middle schools at 9 a.m.
Currently the first period of high school begins at 7:30 a.m. — later than it did even a few years ago — but also an hour earlier than scientific experts recommend for middle and high school students.
A long list of parents spoke out in favor of a later start time during a January meeting.
“There’s plenty of scientific research that adolescents’ learning ability and overall performance are optimized when they begin school at a later time and are able to sleep longer into the morning hours,” said Christine Jackson, who has two children at Annapolis High School.
Jackson described to the board how in 2015 one of her sons, who was 17 at the time, got into a car accident that sent one family member to the hospital.
“My son was not speeding. He was not under the influence. He was not driving distracted,” said Jackson, her voice quivering.
“He fell asleep at the wheel. It was 8:30 p.m. He fell asleep at the wheel, and I’m convinced that his school schedule was partly to blame for that accident. I could have lost my family that night.”
Jackson said her husband’s scream woke her son.
But it wasn’t just parents who had stories to share.
Erin Lorenz, an English teacher at Annapolis High School, said anything that is done to benefit students will have a positive impact on teachers.
“I can also confirm the drowsiness of students in first period, the endless stream of Dunkin’ and Starbucks beverages that make it to my first period, and inattention that is not present in later class periods,” said Lorenz.
“Our needs operate in tandem. What teacher benefits from students arriving to school overtired and potentially overfed?” she said.
Melissa Ellis, vice president of the school board, sees the issue as an urgent one.
“This is a health issue, it is recognized by every major health and mental health organization,” she said
Board member Dana Schallheim agreed.
“When are we going to put our students first, something that starts with healthy and safe start times for all students?” Schallheim asked.
Schallheim pointed out to studies conducted by Virginia’s Fairfax County and other school systems that showed “amazing” results when schools have moved to later start times. ”
“These include increased attendance, improved test scores. Zero, I said it. Zero negative effects when it comes to athletics and student jobs, improved graduation rates, and improved mental health for our students,” Schallheim said.
She also said a study conducted in Virginia found a school that moved its start time to later in the day saw fewer car accidents involving students. Additionally, she said there are benefits for students who work part-time jobs that run into the evening.
In late February or early March, the school board will take up the issue of school start times, as well as the recommendations Prismatic made to reorganize and improve the efficiency of bus routes, which the board admitted had too much influence on class schedules.
The Prismatic recommendation for later start times found that either scenario it offered could be accomplished with fewer or a similar number of bus runs, if routing inefficiencies are corrected.
Board members remarked that the current transportation system is inefficient. Some elementary schools don’t start classes until 9:45 a.m., while other children have to get on half-full school buses before 6 a.m.
“For far too long, the buses have driven us, instead of the school system driving the bus, and this must stop,” Schallheim said.
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