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School start time change plan divides St. Paul parents

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Parents of students at St. Paul Public Schools weighed in Monday on a proposal that would shift start times in the 2015-2016 school year. Under the plan, elementary school would start earlier and high school and middle school would start later. 

The changes are based on studies, including one released at the University of Minnesota last year , that show that teenagers' academic performance and health improves with later start times.  

Other districts around the state, including Edina and Minneapolis, have already pushed back start times.                  

St. Paul Public Schools administrators have been considering the changes since last fall. A steering committee is working out how best to implement it. Under the proposal, most high schools and middle schools would start at 8:30 a.m., while most elementary schools would start at 7:30 a.m. 

Parents who attended the sometimes contentious meeting held by the district Monday were split on the plan. 

Carren Labrasseur has two children in St. Paul schools and is worried that shifting the start times wouldn't prepare them for real life.

"When you go to college, classes start at 7 a.m. or whatever time -- teachers or professors are not going to adjust the times to accommodate students who want to start late," Labrasseur said. "We need to prepare children ahead of time for the real world, so they can be well equipped with what they need to survive." 

Drew Strautman will be an 8th grader at Highland Park Middle School when school starts. He opposes the change. 

"By the time school is done and I finish sports and come home it's about 4 o'clock, all I want to do is take a shower and clean up, and homework is the last thing I think about," Drew Strautman said. "If they change it, I will put it off longer and possibly not get to bed at an appropriate time and not get enough sleep." 

Drew's mom Jennifer said her family already experienced later start times when Drew attended a charter school. 

"It made our afternoons a lot more hectic, having to come home from school and hit the ground running on homework and take care of everything you had to," Jennifer Strautman said. "They really didn't have the opportunity to be able to participate in different extracurriculars and sports." 

Others in the crowd supported the change, pointing to research that's been done on the topic of later start times for teenagers. 

Kristin Teipel is a parent of a 9th grader and expert in adolescent health. She said the ultimate goal should be to best educate the students. 

"All of the things that got brought up about how long the younger kids are in school and transportation -- that's all stuff we can address," Teipel said. "It may take a little longer than a year, but we can do that, because then kids are starting school when it's best suited to how they learn." 

Ryan Vernosh is the district's policy and planning administrator. He said the district is working to address some of the parents' concerns, such as problems finding child care or organizing transportation. 

He told the crowd that education can't be a zero-sum game where the best interests of one group of students is pit against the others.  

We can "take a look at all the information we have, sit down, and listen and try to honor one another's perspectives, and come up with a plan that works." 

Vernosh told parents that shifting the start times in the district is not a done deal. 

"This is one of the most authentic engagement plans I've been a part of," Vernosh said. "We want to hear what our community has to say." 

The district is planning four more public meetings to gather input on the plan. Vernosh said the steering committee will likely make a recommendation to Superintendent Valeria Silva in early October, who will then decide whether or not to send the plan to St. Paul Board of Education for consideration.