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VA: Late start schools at low cost in Arlington

Summary: Based on the most current research on adolescent sleep patterns, this district made a decision to have their high schools start later in the morning. But bringing the idea to fruition wasn't an easy matter. Groups tasked with planning for later start times were instructed that options were to be largely cost neutral and could not include additional buses and drivers. They also had a variety of other issues to consider; extracurricular activities and lunch schedules to name a few. The groups accomplished their mission, however, and students report they now feel more alert and reading for learning.


Several years ago, parents of high school students who attended Arlington Public Schools expressed a desire to have their children start school later—many schools were starting as early as 7:30 a.m. At the same time, research from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) showed that changes in adolescent brain chemistry make it difficult for students to go to bed earlier in order to get up earlier for school. Adolescents are biologically predisposed to going to bed later and sleeping later each day. NSF research indicated a later start to the school day might improve students’ ability to concentrate in class.

District characteristics
Name: Arlington Public Schools
State: VA
Type: Suburban
Grades: K–12
Enrollment: 4,319
Students per teacher: 15

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 22.8%
English language learners: 6.7%
Students with disabilities: 16.7%
White: 70%
Black: 17.9%
Hispanic: 5.9%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 5.9%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 5.1%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters.com

Concerned by this research, the Arlington school board commissioned a citizen and staff workgroup to study the issue.

The group comprised citizens and staff and was headed by a steering committee, explained Sue Robinson, assistant superintendent for finance and management services. First, the district held a general meeting and developed a timeline and outlined defining issues, she says. Then, the group was split into task groups (e.g., transportation, research on sleep, extracurricular activities). “The task groups met and formulated ideas and recommendations,” she says. “From that, the steering committee responded and formulated recommendations back to the task force.”

From the onset, the workgroups were charged with focusing on possibilities that were feasible for Arlington Public Schools, said Elaine S. Furlow, school board member. For example, she said, the committees were instructed that options had to be largely cost neutral and could not include additional school buses and drivers.

The district also involved the public throughout the process by hosting three public forums and incorporating public comments into the proposal, Robinson says.

The workgroups sought input and approval from everyone affected, including high school athletic directors, cafeteria workers, and after school care providers, Furlow said.

A consultant to the district used new software to look at bus routes and make sure the time students spent on buses was balanced by ensuring that buses were filled to ideal capacity whenever possible. The district had the advantage of being geographically small (26 square miles), which made coordination of bus routes easier. However, the district also had to work around high-volume traffic and high-occupancy vehicle restrictions, which affect teacher commutes, associated with an urban district, she adds.

The start times changed in 2001. All district high school start times moved to between 7:50 a.m. and 9 a.m. Anecdotally, students say they are more alert when they start school and parents say they are happy with the change, Furlow said. The community at large has also supported the new start times, she added.

Further, attendance has improved at the high school level since the change was implemented. However, Robinson said, this may also be due to in part to a change in reporting protocols.

The largest disadvantage is that in order to schedule busing, etc., some middle school students start school 20 minutes earlier, Robinson says. “Some of these students are also adolescents, and sleep time is an issue,” she explained. However, due to concerns about darkness and safety associated with earlier start times, the district moved middle school start times back rather than elementary start times, which would have made more sense from a research-based perspective, she added.

Visit the Arlington Public Schools web site for more information about the district's programs.

Lessons learned
  • Start by identifying parameters for the change, such as costs.
  • Talk to other districts that have implemented later-start high school schedules to learn from their experience.
  • Gather input from all parties affected, including teachers, families, school staff, and local employers who hire teenagers for after-school jobs.
  • Consider all relevant environmental factors, such as local traffic patterns, rush hours, and faculty and staff commutes.

Contact

Sue Robinson
Assistant Superintendent
1426 N. Quincy Street
Arlington, VA 22207
Phone: (703) 228-6125
Email: srobinso@arlington.k12.va.us.

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