Changing school start times stirs controversy in St. Paul

Buses leave St. Paul's Ramsey Middle School.
Buses leave St. Paul's Ramsey Middle School after morning drop-off on Monday.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

St. Paul middle and high schoolers may soon be sleeping later in the morning, while some young students may have to roll out of bed early.

The St. Paul school district has a plan to move most middle and high schools to an 8:30 a.m. start time, after shelving a time change in 2015.

Supporters of moving high school and middle school start times point to research showing teens are biologically programmed to fall asleep and wake later than younger children.

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"I have a hard time waking up, and so my brain usually doesn't start working until about 8, 8:30," said Highland Park senior Davina Newman.

Davina said she has more control over her schedule this year because she's taking college classes. "My earliest class is 8, but next semester I won't have any classes that start before 9 because I feel like my brain really starts working around 9," she said.

With school start times of 8:35 a.m. or later, most students at eight schools in a 2014 University of Minnesota study got at least eight hours of sleep.

But direct evidence of academic improvement is more mixed: the study found decreased tardiness and improved GPAs at some schools, but a 2011 study of Twin Cities metro area students didn't find an effect on ACT scores.

The current plan has a $2-4 million price tag, which would add to an existing district deficit.

The cost comes from adding buses to the first pickup round so that elementary students aren't being transported before 7 a.m.

Elementary schools would start at either 7:45 a.m. or 9:30 a.m., times some parents say conflict with work schedules and would require finding extra daycare.

The proposal has sparked an online petition and protests on social media, particularly from elementary school parents who oppose earlier or later starts.

"If times do change, we'd have to pay for care at both ends," said Deepa Nirmal, parent of a second- and fourth-grader at Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented school.

Nirmal's children would move to a 9:30 a.m. start.

"There's just no way we could do an 8:45 bus drop-off, so we'd have to pay for someone to care for them before school ... if school ended at 4, if they did ride the bus they'd get home about 4:35 or 4:40, which is too early for me to make it back home, or for my husband to make it back home," Nirmal said.

Child care costs could be a big burden, especially for the 70 percent of St. Paul students considered low-income.

Nirmal added that her children are ready to learn early in the morning. A 1998 report on Minneapolis schools found negative effects on student learning when elementary start times got as late as 9:40 a.m.

Starting all students within roughly the same time frame sets up a problem with busing. In the St. Paul district, the same group of about 300 buses makes three rounds every morning to pick students up.

"So if everybody wants to go at the same time, we would in theory need 900 buses," district transportation director Tom Burr said.

If buses made fewer rounds, Burr said, drivers would also get fewer hours and less pay, making the positions hard to fill.

One possible solution has some in St. Paul looking enviously across the river. Metro Transit city buses transport Minneapolis students at most of the district's high schools.

But Burr said Metro Transit has told St. Paul it doesn't have the capacity to add more of the district's schools. Currently, Johnson Senior High and Creative Arts Secondary are the only traditional high schools using city buses. Metro Transit did not respond to requests for an interview.

The St. Paul school board plans to discuss start times at its meeting Nov. 1 at 4:30 p.m. at the district administration building, 360 Colborne St. A vote is expected Nov. 15. If approved, changes could take effect in the 2018-19 school year.

School start times across the metro