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2017-02-15 / Front Page

School Board votes to push back start times

By Rich Griset

Those hoping for a change to Chesterfield’s school start time schedule got their heart’s desire on Valentine’s Day.

In a unanimous vote on Feb. 14, the School Board approved a new schedule that will start high schools at 8:30 a.m. and middle schools at 7:35 a.m. There will be three tiers of elementary school start times: 7:45 a.m., 8:30 a.m. and 9:25 a.m. The plan will come with a one-time cost of $4.1 million and will cost an additional $1.9 million in annual expenses. The change in start times requires 30 new buses and drivers, and will be implemented in time for the 2018-19 school year.

“This is not the perfect proposal, but this is definitely a move in the right direction,” said Javaid Siddiqi, School Board chairman and Midlothian district representative. “Tonight, we moved the needle. This is a big step.”

By one account, the school system has discussed changing school start times for 25 years. Citing research that found teenagers are chronically sleep deprived – which can negatively affect mental health, physical health and academic performance – Superintendent James Lane has made pushing back school start times, particularly for high schoolers, a top priority since he took over the school system last July.

The original three options outlined by the school system included one that cost $14.5 million in one-time costs with an annual expense of $5.2 million, another with a $17.9 million one-time cost and annual expenses of $6.5 million, and a final option that cost an initial $19.3 million with $7 million in annual costs. Lane initially advocated for the latter, most expensive of the three options.

Many teachers and parents spoke out at Tuesday’s public hearing, some in support and others in opposition to the plan.

Midlothian resident Laura Heller said that sleep-deprived teenagers on the road were a concern for the entire community.

“Let’s let our teens get the sleep they need so we can all reach our destinations safely,” said the mother of four. “Please act now, and make this change for our schools and our community.”

Sarah Sneed, a psychologist, also spoke in support.

“Every day, we are playing a game [of] Russian roulette with our inexperienced drivers and everyone who shares the road with them,” Sneed said. She also spoke about the importance of sleep to a teenager’s mental health.

Tina Seal, who’s taught elementary school in the county for 28 years, said that the money used to change the schedule would be better spent elsewhere. She said that her salary was so low that she had to work a second job in the morning before school.

“I will no longer be able to work my second job, which I need to make ends meet,” Seal said. “There are so many other ways that we could use this money to improve all schools.”

Matt Becker, a parent with a student at Crenshaw Elementary, said he was in favor of later school start times, but he added that there hasn’t been enough research done about how earlier start times might affect elementary and middle school students. At Crenshaw, which will start at 7:45 a.m., Becker said students would now attend school 90 minutes earlier.

“It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where that shift … will not result in a negative impact for all students,” Becker said.

The approved proposal was first presented to the public a week before the vote at a School Board work session. The quick turnaround between the announcement and the vote drew consternation from local watchdog Brenda Stewart.

“The details of ‘Plan X’ were embargoed until after it was presented at the February 7th work session; those details were not available on BoardDocs prior to the work session,” Stewart wrote to Siddiqi in an email. BoardDocs is the cloud-based network the school system uses to provide documents to the public.

After the vote, Siddiqi said that school system hoped to work to a point where the school system had a two-tier schedule over the next few years.

“This is not something that we sort of haphazardly put together,” Siddiqi said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

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