A School-Schedule Fix 

Common-sense adjustments would be better for taxpayers, for student health, and, most importantly, for learning.

click to enlarge school_bus.jpg

A real estate principle known as "highest and best use" posits that a property's use should produce the highest value, regardless of its actual current use. Such is not the case with middle and high schools, here and across the nation, where these multi-million dollar buildings pretty much lie fallow between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 a.m. Taxpayers deserve better.

So do the students. A spate of recent articles reminds us that sleep cycles of older adolescents differ from children and adults, in that their melatonin does not kick in until nearly 11:30 p.m. and they need approximately 9 hours of sleep each night. This means that waking up before 8:30 a.m. is bad for their health. This research has been validated and globally replicated for decades.  

We already know that metabolism in adults is affected by sleep deprivation and that weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease often result. But we want to shoe-horn teens into an adult schedule that we know harms human health for few reasons other than tradition.

Prominent psychologist John Rosemond argues that later start times for teenagers merely coddle them and they need to just turn off their electronic devices and get to bed early. But the endocrine system does not take its orders from even well-meaning and learned adults.  

The solution lies in arranging our school schedules in a way that benefits students and prevents the necessity of building separate middle and high schools. Collierville and Lakeland, take note.

My own Florida school was forced to revamp its schedule when our senior high experienced crowding so great that the school day was divided into two sessions: 7 a.m. to noon for sophomores and noon to 5 p.m. for juniors and seniors. A similar rethinking of start times and grade segmentation ought to be seriously considered in Shelby County.

As any parent of a young child will tell you, keeping them in bed past sunrise on the weekend is no easy task. So, start the youngest children (grades K-5) at 7 a.m. and end their day at 3 p.m. or thereabouts, which would necessitate providing only after-school care instead of both before- and after-care.  

For middle schoolers (grades 6-8), the day would begin at 8:30 a.m. and end five hours later at 1:30 p.m., at which time high schoolers (grades 9-12) would start their day, ending at 6:30 p.m. 

Since sleep science has proven that absenteeism and tardiness decline when older adolescents start later, and grades and scores go up while car accidents go down, this would prove beneficial for everyone. We also know the time for teenagers to engage in risky behaviors is when they are most awake: between the end of school and the time their parents arrive home.

The four basic courses with time for changing classes and a healthy, on-the-go meal would substitute for the speed-dining 26 minutes our kids get now. Both would fit into the new five-hour schedule, while electives and extracurricular choices would occur after school for early students, and before classes for later students. Since buses do not currently function as a private limo service by waiting around for students according to their activities, nothing would change except that we might need fewer buses because they'd be more efficient. 

Here's an example: After delivering elementary kids, drivers would be picking up middle schoolers. While the middle-schoolers were in school, the buses would pick up high schoolers, who would be disgorged in time for the middle schoolers to board immediately. In the lull between the beginning of high school and its end, elementary kids would be picked up. After depositing them, drivers would go back to the high school to pick up the last session. As a result, there would be far fewer empty buses rattling around town.

Since many after-school jobs are fast food and retail, both of which stay open late, and since high schoolers would be waking later, working until closing would not rob them of sleep.

Fewer dollars tied up in construction and maintenance means more money for full-time art and music teachers and coaches who just coach, while a shorter class day gives teachers more planning time. Administrative functions would require a few more people, but not an entirely separate staff. There are teachers and others who won't like a new schedule, but school is for kids; their needs come first.

And taxpayers' interests shouldn't be sacrificed to erect buildings that stand as monuments to nostalgia and inefficiency for 16 hours a day.

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