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Do Hamilton County high schools start class too early?

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, high school students are wired to stay up late, and sleep in later.  Studies show sleepy teens are more likely to be tardy, absent, inattentive, and less able to learn.  Yet, the huge majority of Hamilton County high schoolers are in their first period class at 7:15 a.m.  

Soddy-Daisy High School is one of eleven Hamilton County high schools with a 7:15 start time.  Why so early? It’s simple economics.  With bus service to 75 schools, they can’t all run at the same time, so the older students are assigned to the first of 3 tiers of transportation.  Officials say they would like to see these schools start later, but the economic necessities of bus transportation make that impossible.  Given the choice, they say, they prefer the older students be on the streets earlier than elementary children.                 

It may make financial sense, but academics is another story.  Students say after a late night of extracurriculars, employment, and homework, they’re not ready for advanced algebra before the sun rises. Soddy-Daisy junior Gabby Green said, " We don’t talk, we just sit there and we’re really tired.  Some students sleep in class."   

Pediatricians say teens need 8 ½ hours of sleep to be at their most attentive, but it’s a safe bet that many Hamilton County high schoolers are awakened well before they reach that mark.  Teachers have the challenge of keeping students awake and engaged in class, while parents have the challenge of enforcing rules at home.

Bleshette Coulter, a teacher and parent said, "I think it’s very important to have rules on bedtime, my husband and I agree. Bedtime is nine o’clock every night. They need that rest, they need that structure." 

There’s the added concern of safety.  Many students also drive to school at an early hour, or wait at dark bus stops in dangerous traffic.

Still, the cries for a later start time are nowhere near unanimous.  After-school activities are a big part of high school, and those who dismiss at 2:15 p.m. have far more time to practice and participate. Howard principal Zac Brown has worked at schools with both early and late start times.

He said, "The benefit of getting out at 2:15 gives you more time for after school activities. But when you get out late, by the time you play sports, or band, or go to your job, there’s no time for homework, really." 

Others say a later morning start time is not necessarily the solution for low academics and tardiness.  Howard High made the move from 7:15 to 9:00 seven years ago, under orders from the state.  One veteran teacher said some problems still exist. Michelle Buchanan-Egbe said, "At first it did improve, but after a while they adjusted, when we started at 7:15, they got here at 9:00, then we moved to 9:00 and they got here at 11, so they adjusted."

Because of the later start time, Howard High students are the envy of their peers throughout Hamilton County.  They’re among a small number of students who get to sleep in, comparatively speaking.  

Howard teacher Laura Allen said, "Before the later time change, a lot of our students who work after school, had to get up early, with less sleep, so certainly it's helpful to have an extra hour or two in the morning."

Despite the state's good intentions, ACT scores show academics at Howard have not improved since the later start times were implemented.  In 2005, Howard students scored a 15.8 on the ACT, but the overall score has declined to 14.3 in 2014. The State Report Card shows attendance rates have dropped slightly since 2007 (89.8% to 87.4%), although graduation rates over the same period are trending upward (47.4% to 68.6%).  It’s clear that the time change did not result in a miracle fix.

Principal Brown, who is in his third year at Howard, said, "I don’t know if the 9 o’clock start has given us what we thought would happen. I don’t see it when it comes to improvements in academics."

Howard students say they’re accustomed to the 9:00 start time, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Junior Akia Lewis said, "I have more time to do things for me, if we started earlier I wouldn’t have time to do anything in the morning." Sophomore Kiara McCroskey said,"I produce better when I have time to wake up and be alert."

But they’re finding the same problems cited by critics of the later start time at other schools.  Students have other things to do, like report to their jobs, after school dismisses, and when that happens at 4:00, it can cause problems.

Senior Jahmani Thomas said, "I only get to work on weekends, and I have to get up early on Saturday, just to work."

So what’s the answer?  Superintendent Rick Smith is faced with the task of balancing school bus routes with limited funds.  That’s why schools start at various times ranging from 7:15 to 9:00. Smith said, "We’re on a 3-tiered transportation system. It’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s true.  Transportation drives our school starting times."

Even students and teachers at Soddy-Daisy High, one of the many schools ringing the first bell at 7:15 aren’t totally sold on a dramatically later start time.  In their perfect world, they’d like a little more sleep, but not an awful lot.

Gabby Gray said, "I would like to start school a little later, maybe an hour later would help."

Principal Gilbert added, "I would go 8:00, that is an ideal time."

Howard principal Brown likes the 8:00 high school start time too, even though his students and teachers would have to report an hour earlier.

Can it be done in Hamilton County?  Supt. Smith says he’s seen the sleep studies, as well as academic test scores, and it may be time to make a move, with all schools starting 45 minutes later.

Smith said, "That’s something we could do, move everything back 45 minutes, which means our 3rd tier schools that start at 9:00 would start at 9:45.  It wouldn't make everyone happy, but it’s something we can look at."

Nationally, about 1,000 high schools have pushed back start times in the past five years, but thousands of others have resisted, due to economic or athletic considerations.  Some elected officials say a 7:15 start time can actually be an education in itself, because it teaches students and families the discipline and structure that is often needed in the workforce.  The lesson it teaches, they say, is you have to show up on time, whatever that time may be.

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