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Why Do CMS High Schools Start So Early?

Gwendolyn Glenn

Editor’s note: A version of this story was published on Sep. 10, 2019.

School looks different for most students these days because of the coronavirus pandemic. But whether classes are in person or online, a lot of Charlotte-area high schools start very early in the morning.

One WFAE listener, Jennifer Morell, wrote in to "FAQ City" wondering about this early start time, and asked if our kids might be better served if we pushed back the opening bell.

As it turns out, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools did consider delaying high school start times several years ago, but the school board ultimately decided against it.

The proposal was made by a CMS task force composed of several parents and education professionals. They argued the early start times interfered with students' sleep, and that CMS could improve students' academic performance and mental well-being by simply opening schools later.

That was backed up by research from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which found teenagers are biologically wired to stay up later than adults and young children. Most of them can't fall asleep before 11 p.m., the researchers found, and forcing them to get up early only leads to chronic sleep deprivation.

The academy recommended middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., and by shifting to a later start, schools could potentially see higher test scores and graduation rates, reduce car crashes caused by sleepy teenagers, and fight against obesity and sport injuries.

Susan Plaza, a parent and former CMS teacher herself, was among those on the task force. She tells us the proposal had support from then-Superintendent Heath Morrison, but the plan was scuttled amid Morrison's abrupt firing in October 2014.

The plan also faced opposition from some CMS administrators and members of the school board who worried the change would disrupt the everyday routines of CMS families and could interfere with after-school sports or students' jobs, not to mention the added cost of new buses.

On this episode of the "FAQ City" podcast, we'll speak with Susan Plaza and revisit the proposal that never came to pass. We'll also ask if it could resurface now that a new CMS superintendent is in place.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.
Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal