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With less snooze, students lose, some say

But committee remains divided over issue of high school start times

Feb. 15, 2011

Greenfield — By a narrow margin, an advisory committee has recommended pushing back the start time for Greenfield High School by at least a half-hour.

But the Greenfield Ad Hoc School Start Time Advisory Committee also agreed Monday that all the elementary schools should start at the same time, that they should start earlier and that the district should considering encouraging more students to walk to school, especially at the middle school.

Moving back the high school start time was clearly the most divisive issue, with strong feelings expressed on both sides.

Relying on research

On an 8-6 vote, those in favor of the later start time sided with two Medical College of Wisconsin researchers, both of who has been called on to provide input and discuss research that indicates high school students do better if school starts later, partly due to the amount of sleep teenagers require.

In particular, one study in the Minneapolis schools showed dropout rates falling significantly, although researchers could not pinpoint the later start time as the main cause, committee chairwoman Delores Skowronek said.

Greenfield High has a far higher dropout rate than Cudahy and Brown Deer high schools. Greenfield's is 10.3 percent while Cudahy's is 1 percent and Brown Deer's 5.4 percent, according to data Skowronek presented.

"This, in my opinion, should frighten everybody," she said.

If it is shown that a later start time would help reduce dropout rates, she would support such a change, Skowronek said.

With school starting at 7:10 a.m., Greenfield High has the earliest high school start time in Wisconsin, leading to students being late for class, Skowronek said.

They fail those classes and wind up dropping out of school, she said.

Studies seem to indicate that where high schools start later, students are more alert and do better in class.

Other factors to consider, too

But those voting against recommending a later high school start time to the Greenfield School Board had a different view.

Some on the committee said a later start time would not get students to school on time - they would just stay up later.

Others bridled at what they see as the schools being asked to take care of a problem because parents do not get their teenagers to bed.

Still others said the fudge-factor might explain why Greenfield has a higher dropout rate than Cudahy and Brown Deer. School districts can and have manipulated dropout numbers to look better, said committee member Pam Panich.

And, in an issue that has risen in past discussions by the committee and the School Board, some members noted that the additional $87,000 to $100,000 needed to move the start time back at the high school and make needed adjustments at the elementary and middle schools could be used better on other needs.

"I'd rather put the money into programs than a 45-minute time change," said committee member Lee Kleszczynski, a Greenfield High School teacher who has seen numerous program cuts in his tenure.

Busing-related costs

The reason attributed to the higher cost is that more school buses would be needed if high school start times were later. Currently, the same buses get students to and from school in four batches. High schoolers get to school at 6:50 a.m., middle schoolers at 7:30 a.m., two of the elementary school at 8:30 a.m. and the other two at 9 a.m.

Because school officials do not want school to start much after 9 a.m., more buses would be needed to get students to school in three or even two batches.

The three-batch option would cost $87,000 more and result in the middle school starting earliest at 7:30 a.m., then the high school at 8:02 a.m. and finally all the elementaries at 9:05 a.m.

The most expensive is the two-batch option. The middle school would start at 7:45 a.m. and the high and elementary schools would start at 8:02 and 9:05 a.m., respectively.

The cost of having more buses could be brought down somewhat if more students walked to school, acknowleged Kristin Kollath, director of business services. Each school bus costs $40,000 per year to run, she said.

That is why the committee also wants the School Board to push for sidewalks when the city rebuilds roads. Then children can walk to school.

Financial trump card?

Despite the committee's mixed feelings, the majority recommendation will go to the Greenfield School Board for its March 7 meeting.

Kleszczynski doubts the School Board will need to sleep on the recommendation. The board has seen much of this data and information before, and the bottom line has been money, he said.

To give the recommendation a better shot, the committee should have been coming up with ways to pay for a time change, he said.

But the School Board seems to find money for other things, said committee member Cathy Walsh, a former School Board member. Maybe the key is to see where on the list of priorities this type of spending comes in, she suggested.

For example, is it more important than seventh-grade basketball?, she asked.

Pressing snooze button

However, even supporters of changing the start times acknowledge that this issue could be something that will have to wait for when the schools have more money. However, Walsh strongly advocated devising some way to have it come up at every year at budget development time so that the idea is not just laid on a shelf because of funding.

The committee favored a uniform start time for the elementary schools because education is improved when teachers can work together on techniques. Getting teachers from different elementary schools together is hard right now because dismissal times are a half-hour apart, the committee said.

Having the elementary schools start earlier would align better with students' natural sleep patterns, according to the committee recommendations. They tend to get tired in the afternoons because they get up early with their parents who have to get ready for work.

Parents also would see a benefit, Walsh said, in that they could be sure that their children get to school because they would still be at home when their children leave.

THE NEXT STEP

WHAT: Ad Hoc School Start Time Advisory Committee's recommendation to the Greenfield School Board

WHEN: March 7

WHERE: school administration office, 4850 S. 60th St.

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