Figuring out what is the best time for schools to open is something parents and schools officials don’t always agree on. Many studies show that later school start times have many benefits including better student performance in the classroom, lower absenteeism rates, improved mental health and fewer auto accidents for older students.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg School officials say they took those and other factors into account when setting next year’s bell schedules. 20 percent of CMS bell times will change, but the times overall don’t match researchers’ recommendations.
Next year, bell times for 35 schools will change between five to fifteen minutes. A handful will change by 45 minutes or more. CMS spokesperson Tracy Russ said transportation is the primary consideration.
“We take into account factors about available buses and the number of drivers," Russ said. "Any decisions we make that are student and family centric take into account variables that would affect academic performance."
Most elementary schools will open around 8:30 a.m., with a few starting as early as 7:45 a.m. and as late as 9:15 a.m. Middle schools are a mixed bag and all CMS high schools start the earliest at 7:15 a.m.
Research shows that CMS’ bell times could be affecting student achievement.
Dr. Cora Breuner, chair of the Committee on Adolescence for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said it’s most effective for elementary students to start earlier and for high school students to start later.
“Teens don’t fall asleep until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. and they need eight to 10 hours [of sleep] to function efficiently and learn at school, so they shouldn’t wake up until seven or eight in the morning, giving them an hour to get up, get breakfast and get to school,” Breuner said. “Start times for kids 14 to 18 years old should be somewhere around 9 a.m.”
Breuener said teens need more sleep because of biological changes. According to the National Sleep Foundation, melatonin levels - which regulate when people become sleepy - kick in much later for teens, causing them to have more energy at night. The opposite is true with younger students. They are more alert in the morning - while teenagers’ melatonin levels are still elevated - so they are generally drowsy, regardless of what time they went to bed.
A Rand Corporation report found that 60 percent of middle and high school students get less than the eight to 10 hours of sleep that medical experts say they need. This makes high schoolers more prone to having car accidents and less primed to learn.
CMS board member Ruby Jones said she is familiar with the research and agrees with it. She said those findings were taken into consideration when setting CMS’ start times, but they also have to factor in elements of the district.
“A lot of our children, especially those in low-income high schools, have part-time jobs,” Jones said. “We have more students than you can imagine that are really contributing substantially to the household. So yes, the research is there and on first blush I agree wholeheartedly, but then we have the practical side of it, reality."
A lot of older students also take care of their younger siblings after school. There are also a lot of resistant parents, who say later starts for younger children would interfere with their schedules.
Next year, Cotswold Elementary School, in southeast Charlotte will go from a 9:15 a.m. start time to an 8 a.m. start time because of changes in the student assignment plan. Many parents aren’t happy with the change.
“It’s going to really mess with me and my wife’s work schedule because we’re working parents. We have to add daycare to the element so it’s gonna cost us money,” said Trey Walters, father of first grade twins at Cotswold Elementary School. “It’s not getting up early, but having a solution when they get out of school between three and five. We’ll have to find some sort of daycare or after school program.”
CMS’ bell times are similar to Wake County Schools, where a study in 2012 looked at what would happen if Wake middle school bell times were pushed back. Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow for the Center for American progress, has used that study in his research.
“In Wake County, NC, they found that by pushing [start times] back by an hour, schools saw a two percent growth in math scores and that’s significant,” Boser said.
According to Lisa Luten, the district spokesperson, Wake County officials did not push back start times for all of their schools when the study was published.
“We have on occasion had some high schools start later," Luten said. "The challenges we encountered were they had to miss the last period of their class because they had to travel with their teams at competitions and that caused problems with homework."
In 2004, CMS officials scheduled two high schools to start later at 8:45 a.m. They changed back to a 7:15 a.m. start time two years later after officials saw no change in attendance and mixed results on state exam test scores.
Those results don't surprise Breuner, of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She said it doesn’t work unless change is made across the board.
“If everybody just did it there wouldn’t be this back and forth," Breuner said. "In the school districts of Minneapolis and Kentucky and other districts throughout the country that rolled the times back, we’ve seen a difference in attendance, tardiness, grades and mental health scores."
Some education experts suggest that all schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. But Russ, the CMS spokesperson, says such a change isn’t financially feasible because of the number of additional buses and drivers the district would need.
Start times for high schools in counties that border CMS broken down by hour:
- Cabarrus County High Schools: 7:15 a.m.
- Mooresville High School: 7:30 a.m.
- Lincoln County School of Technology: 7:50 a.m.
- Lincolnton High School: 7:55 a.m.
- East Lincoln High School: 7:55 a.m.
- Cuthbertson High School: 8:00 a.m.
- Gaston County High Schools: 8:00 a.m.
- Marvin Ridge High School: 8:00 a.m.
- Monroe High School: 8:00 a.m.
- North Lincoln High School: 8:00a.m.
- Porter Ridge High School: 8:00 a.m.
- South Iredell High School: 8:00 a.m.
- Sun Valley High School: 8:00 a.m.
- Weddington High School 8:00 a.m.
- West Lincoln High School: 8:00a.m.
- Catawba County High Schools: 8:05 a.m.
- Lake Norman High School: 8:10 a.m.
- North Iredell High School: 8:10 a.m.
- Statesville High School: 8:10 a.m.
- Parkwood High School: 8:15 a.m.
- West Iredell High School: 8:15 a.m.
- Forest Hills High School: 8:20 a.m.
- Piedmont High School: 8:20 a.m.
- Rowan-Salisbury County High Schools: 8:30 a.m.
- Fort Mill County High Schools: 8:40 a.m.