With parents in the Mehlville School District weary of one more change in a year of too many changes to count, school start times are set to stay the same next year.
The Start Time Committee recommended last week that school start times stay exactly the way they are now after reviewing hundreds of public surveys and receiving mostly negative feedback on changes through an April 11 public meeting at Oakville High School.
The Board of Education will meet Wednes-day, April 26, to make a final decision, but Superintendent Chris Gaines is not recommending any change. The meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. in the Mehlville High School Library, 3200 Lemay Ferry Road.
Parents believe too much is changing in Mehlville all at once, Director of Secondary Curriculum Amanda Zink told the committee when it met April 19 at Oakville Middle School.
“There’s a lot of change fatigue in our community right now,” she said.
Among the changes encouraged by Gaines this year are a new lottery-based school of innovation, Mosaic Elementary, set to open in the fall; redistricting that took 7 percent of students to new schools; a change in block scheduling at the high school to allow for more flexible schedules; and the addition of early college and other advanced classes and internships at the high schools.
In surveys for next year’s school calendar, where parents also suggested district officials examine school start times, Gaines said.
Hundreds of parents responded to a survey that asked for feedback on three scenarios, with all start times moved back by at least 25 minutes:
Scenario A with most elementary schools starting at 7:40 a.m. and getting out at 2:30 p.m., high schools and Blades and Beasley elementaries starting at 8:25 a.m. and getting out at 3:15 p.m., and the four middle schools at 9:10 a.m., getting out at 4 p.m.
Scenario B with the middle schools starting earliest, then high schools, then elementaries last.
Scenario C with high schools first, then middle schools, then elementaries.
Survey takers disliked B the most and A and C the best, but C received half the negative comments that A did.
“In my opinion, the suggestions that we gave were not liked,” said Oakville High Athletics Director Becky Czuppon, who served on the committee. “The idea of change is well-received, but not these particular changes.”
Many parents said they hoped for a change at a later time, and hundreds of people said they agree that research shows that later start times would be better, Zink said.
Gaines is not surprised at the passion that parents fought against a change in start times, because it was a decision that potentially impacted every family in the district.
“What I had said when we kind of started this off was this is kind of a bigger deal than redistricting because depending on how it gets done, everybody gets affected,” he said.
To Gaines, the biggest argument against changing is how any start-time shift might impact families’ budgets for day care. A father at the public meeting said that if he had to pay for before-school care, it could cost more than $14,000 in his child’s last few years of elementary school.
During the block scheduling conversation last fall, a teacher on the Schedule Review Committee said she was determined to get start times changed to accommodate teenagers’ circadian rhythms. Students at Oakville and Mehlville high schools start class at 7:15 a.m. and get out at 2:05 p.m. The first lunch hour at both schools starts at 10:24 a.m., or at 10 a.m. on early-release days.
Looking across the region, Mehlville high schools have some of the earliest start times, Gaines said.
Elementary schools typically start later, which goes against academic research that shows that younger children do better with school starting early, while teenagers do better with a later start. Most Mehlville elementary schools don’t start until 8:45 a.m. and get out at 3:30 p.m.
The current start times were primarily set up to save money on bus routes as the district went to a three-tier bus system during a round of budget cuts years ago.
The initial idea was to flip start times for high schools and middle schools, which could be done easily without affecting sports or bus routes, Gaines said. But the committee decided that middle-school start times should also be later and suggested moving all tiers back 25 minutes.
That idea is supported by a study in Rhode Island that found that a simple 25-minute move improved high-school well-being, with positive effects on sleep, mood and coffee consumption. But if shifting high school also means shifting elementary later, a parent pointed out that the change was counterproductive to students as a whole.
“We can’t sacrifice one group of kids for another,” a mother said at the OHS meeting.
Students served on the committee, but some attending the OHS meeting objected to how later start times could impact their jobs, extracurricular activities and homework.
The only reason Gaines sent the idea to a committee in the first place was because of feedback on surveys that parents wanted to re-examine start times, he said.
“Otherwise it was not on our radar to think about or talk about or anything else,” he said. “If you go back to what we put out at the beginning of the year on what we were going to engage people around, this was not one of them. And it only came up because it kept coming up. So we said, ‘we’ll see what people want to do.'”
Although some parents bristled that the survey did not include an option that current times are best, Gaines said that the survey included blanks where people could say what they wanted. If survey takers are given the option to keep things the same, they will usually vote against any change.
“‘We don’t like the way it is, but we don’t want to do it differently, either,’ — that’s kind of what we’ve seemed to run up against over and over again,” Gaines said.
As surveys have rolled in this year, Gaines has also seen a trend of some residents getting upset that current practices are questioned at all, which will never lead to improvement, he said.
“If businesses don’t question the way their practices are, they don’t grow, they don’t get better,” he said. “Just ask Borders and Blockbuster.”
As for the future, Gaines said that he’s not sure if the district will revisit the start-times discussion. But he has charged two Central Office administrators with looking into whether it is possible to switch the district to two bus tiers at little or no cost, which could shift start times without as many problems.