School Start Times: When Should the Bells Ring?

The Triangle’s public school systems generally operate on three schedules, or tiers.


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An Nguyen/Shutterstock photo

As summer wanes, Triangle families prepare for more regularly scheduled days — organized by alarm clocks and bus stops, homework and after-school activities, packed-up lunchboxes and signed agendas. For some students, depending on when their morning bell rings, heading back to school can bring about a marked change in sleep routines as well.

School bell schedules are a hotly debated issue because they affect everything from parents’ work schedules to whether teachers and teens can squeeze in after-school jobs. Given that schools’ primary purpose is to provide students with a sound educational experience, the role bell schedules play in student performance and achievement is also receiving increasing attention.

Bell Schedules Vary Across the Triangle

The Triangle’s public school systems generally operate on three schedules, or tiers. In the Wake County Public School System, high schools start first, usually at 7:25 a.m., followed by middle schools and then elementary schools, the latest of which start at 9:15 a.m. In other Triangle school systems — Durham Public Schools, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools — that schedule is basically flipped, with elementary schools starting first, usually by 8 a.m., and high schools starting closer to 9 a.m.

WCPSS Chief Communications Officer Tim Simmons notes that “many issues are considered” in establishing bell schedules for WCPSS schools, “but the biggest ones are available bus drivers, the school choices made by parents and the traffic patterns. All three have significant effects on routes and logistics.”

In WCPSS, nearly 50 percent of students ride the bus daily — but the bell schedules built around bus riders are not always a perfect fit.

Julie Ridenour’s daughter attends Farmington Woods Elementary in Cary, a WCPSS school that starts at 9:15 a.m. She says the late start time can be “a real problem for working parents. Finding quality before-school care is a huge issue.”

Michelle Weeks, whose daughter attends OCS’s Orange High School, says, “Starting later is nice, but getting out at 4 p.m. has a few disadvantages, especially if you participate in sports and practice isn’t over until 6 or 7. It can make for some late nights.”

School, Sleep and Teens

As it turns out, teens are biologically programmed for late nights. Early mornings are the problem.

Research has shown that hormonal changes cause a shift in teens’ natural sleep-wake cycle, turning early risers into night owls beginning around age 13. Add to that teens’ busier schedules, homework load and frequent use of sleep-killing electronic media, and the result is a national trend of sleep deprivation — a finding that in 2014 spurred the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a policy statement recommending middle and high schools delay the start of class until 8:30 a.m. or later to help teens get their recommended nine hours of sleep.

Karen Shore, whose son attends WCPSS’s Holly Springs High School, which starts at 7:25 a.m., says he doesn’t get “remotely enough sleep. It affects his mood, his concentration. If he sits down for more than five minutes without a task, he falls asleep. I worry about him driving.”

Such concerns moved DPS officials to change their bell schedule for the 2016-17 school year, bumping most high schools to later start times and spreading elementary schools across all three tiers.

G. Scott Denton, DPS’s assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, says administrators had to consider the impact on before- and after-school programs, athletics and teachers’ professional development. Also, as DPS offers universal free breakfast, buses must arrive in time for students to eat before class begins.

“It was like putting a puzzle together — and some of the pieces weren’t labeled,” he says, noting there was also no increase in their budget. “But it came together pretty smoothly in the end.”

For Jennifer Shrewsbury, whose son attends Durham School of the Arts, which has a 9:15 a.m. start time, the trade-offs have been generally positive.

“I like being able to spend more time with him later in the evenings when things have quieted down without worrying he is staying up too late,” she says. “For us, the later start time has been a positive experience.”

In CHCCS and OCS, which are significantly smaller school systems than DPS, high schools have started closer to 9 a.m. for years. Some students and families in WCPSS, the state’s largest school system, are hoping for a similar change.

“I have worked in a school system where the school day started at 7:30. There was a high level of tardies for first-period classes. I think starting later is beneficial.” — Jessica Harris, a counselor at East Chapel Hill High School

Weighing Options

Apex Friendship High School junior Nylah Robinson and her classmates focused on the issue of school start times last year for a group research project because they felt it was important to their community. The group’s resulting petition made the local news.

“Talking to other students and parents, we found they felt the same way,” she says.

Interestingly, WCPSS was the site for a study on how start time affects student achievement by Colby College researcher Finley Edwards. His May 2012 analysis, “Do Schools Begin Too Early?” suggests that delaying the start of middle school by one hour — from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. — results in measurable gains on standardized math and reading tests, particularly for students scoring in the bottom third. Finley also found later start times are associated with reduced TV viewing, increased time spent on homework and 25 percent fewer absences.

Jessica Harris, a counselor at CHCCS’s East Chapel Hill High School, says she has witnessed a similar connection.

“I have worked in a school system where the school day started at 7:30. There was a high level of tardies for first-period classes,” she says. “I think starting later is beneficial.”

However, for WCPPS, the logistics of such a shift for its 177 schools have proven too costly in past analyses. In 2016, school spokesperson Lisa Luten estimated the additional buses and drivers necessary to change the school system’s three-tiered schedule would cost $100 million—money that, with budgets as tight as ever, is not likely to be approved.

“The state considers Wake’s bus transportation system to be quite efficient,” Simmons says. “There are no financial incentives built into the state’s funding system for creating transportation inefficiencies.”

Edwards’ study suggests, however, that a change in school start time may pay for itself in other ways. “Later start times have the potential to be a more cost-effective method of increasing student achievement than other common educational interventions, such as reducing class size,” he notes.

In the coming months, DPS staff will analyze student achievement data and review family surveys to determine whether its changes have been worthwhile, Denton says.

“We certainly hope all high schools will grow academically and that we can tie the new bell schedule to that,” he concludes. “I hope this change has been a good one for students, families and our schools.”

School Transportation by the Numbers

SCHOOL SYSTEM

NUMBER OF SCHOOLS

NUMBER OF STUDENTS

NUMBER OF BUS RIDERS

NUMBER OF BUSES RUNNING DAILY

NUMBER OF MILES BUSES RUN PER DAY

WCPSS

177

160,000

75,000-80,000 (46-50%)

760

100,000

DPS

55

33,000

18,570 (56%)

250

23,000

CHCCS

21

12,100

4,400 (36%)

74

5,356

OCS

13

7,260

3,800 (52%)

66

8,177

 

Bell Schedules by School System

With a few exceptions for individual schools, the Triangle’s four public school systems all operate on a three-tier system that allows them to run school buses on multiple routes each morning and afternoon. One school, Apex High School, has been relocated to the new Green Level High School for two years so it can be renovated. Consequently, its schedule will be 7:10 a.m.-2:03 p.m. to allow for additional bus travel time needed for the new location.

SCHOOL SYSTEM

TIER 1

TIER 2

TIER 3

WCPSS

7:25-2:18 (High)

7:30-2:15 (Middle)

8:15-3 (Middle)

8:30-3 (Elementary)

9:15-3:45 (Elementary)

DPS

7:30-2:20 (Middle)

7:45-2:15 (Elementary)

8:30-3 (Elementary)

9-4 (High)

9:15-3:45 (Elementary)

CHCCS

7:50-2:30 (Elementary)

8:20-3:10 (Middle)

8:45-3:55 (High)

OCS

7:55-2:50 (Elementary)

8:20-3:35 (Middle)

8:45-4 (High)

 

Karen Lewis Taylor is a former high school teacher with extensive experience writing about education, child mental health and students with special needs. A lifelong resident of the Triangle, she lives with her family in Apex.

 

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