Schools start too early in the morning for teenagers' sleep cycles

Early school start times -- including in Madison, where most middle schools begin at 7:35 a.m. -- have serious consequences for learning and health, research shows. 

The Madison Metropolitan School District is considering changing start times and the transportation model for some elementary and middle schools as early as next school year.

The district is weighing multiple scenarios that could affect start times for 12 ‘early-start’ elementary schools and 10 of the 12 middle schools. They are examining start times for both levels between 8 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. The possibilities also include transitioning middle schoolers from Madison Metro Transit buses to yellow school bus services.

The district said the possible changes could affect up to 10,000 elementary and middle school students.

Most middle schools and ‘early start’ elementary schools begin classes between 7:35 a.m. and 7:45 a.m.

Currently, Madison middle school students use the city-wide Madison Metro Transit bus service to get to and from school. If the district decides to make middle school start times later, Metro Transit would not be able to accommodate them.

Speaking at a Madison School Board meeting on Monday, Mike Barry, assistant superintendent of business services for MMSD, said Metro Transit does not have the fleet or capacity to serve an influx of students during peak hours.

“We cannot see a solution whereby we can meet these time objectives and do it within the constraint that Metro faces as a public transit operator,” he said. “It is not that Metro is being difficult with us, they have to serve the whole city. For us to ask for later middle school start service conflicts with their peak service obligations at the university and across the city.”

MMSD parent survey results indicate that the switch from Metro to yellow bus service is popular among middle school parents, with 61 percent of parents supporting it. Barry said the majority of middle school-aged students across the country get to and from school on yellow buses.

District officials estimate the switch to yellow buses for middle school students in conjunction with an early-start elementary school time change would cost $600,000 to $950,000 annually. This option is cheaper than a middle school only change, which would cost the district upwards of $2 million and an additional 50 yellow bus routes.

“We think that if we are going to continue down this path, we have to and should look at elementary in conjunction with middle,” Barry said. “We think that is the right way to approach this.”

The switch to yellow bus service could eliminate the need for the district to provide Metro bus passes for middle school students. Earlier survey results indicate this change would be unpopular among parents of color and low-income parents.

“The student bus pass is not just a bus pass for school purposes. It runs seven days a week and it runs way beyond the hours of school,” Barry said. “That is one of the many trade-offs we ultimately need to consider internally and get parent reaction to.”

The district began considering changes to middle school start times in 2016. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that later school start times lead to positive changes for middle school student attendance, behavior and sleep health.

A fall 2016 survey indicated that more than 70 percent of middle school parents, staff and students supported a later start time.

In spring of this year, MMSD conducted another survey with both elementary and middle school parents specifically proposing a 9:15 a.m. to 4:17 p.m. schedule change for middle school students. Results showed that 51 percent of parents who took the survey would support the change. Parents said starting and ending that late would negatively affect after school program options and conflict with their work schedules.

Over the next few weeks, the district will analyze various scenarios for starting between 8 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. to bring recommendations to the Madison School Board as early as November. The district also needs to determine the best way to solicit community feedback about the proposed scenarios. Barry urged the board to make a decision by January if they plan to begin phasing in the changes by the 2018-2019 school year.

Barry said, if approved, the changes would need to be phased-in over time to give bus companies a chance to find and hire drivers.

“I mentioned financial concerns as a reason to phase in (any changes), but there is also the burden of finding that many drivers and making that work. (Bus companies) are struggling across the country to find drivers.”