Future school start times give St. Paul families a wake-up call

Busses leave St. Paul's Ramsey Middle School.
Busses leave St. Paul's Ramsey Middle School after morning drop-off on October 31, 2016.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News 2016

St. Paul families are making plans for new school start times after the district published school-by-school information this week.

The change will shift most middle and high schools to a later start beginning in the fall of 2019 in an effort to accommodate teenagers' sleep patterns.

Under the plan, most elementary schools will either remain at their current 9:30 a.m. start time or move to an earlier 7:30 a.m. start.

St. Paul parent Deepa Nirmal said she was surprised when the list of new start times came out. Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet school, which her two children attend, is one of just a few elementary schools that move to a later start of 9:30 a.m. under the plan.

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Nirmal said later is better than earlier, but her children, who will be 11 and 13 years old by then, will have to get to the bus stop on their own in the morning.

"My plan is that my husband and I will leave for work, and they're going to have to get themselves to the bus stop. It's not ideal, but I don't know how else we'd make it work," Nirmal said.

Other elementary schools' shift to an earlier start has caused some parents to oppose the plan throughout St. Paul's years-long process toward new times.

Parents have argued that elementary students starting school at 7:30 a.m. will need to get up too early to catch their buses.

St. Paul school board member Mary Vanderwert acknowledged that some families may be driven away by the shift in start times. The St. Paul district has been working to retain families and improve enrollment numbers.

"That's probably a possibility, but our role is to ensure success of all children that we have, and the evidence around start times for teenagers is really compelling," Vanderwert said.

Proponents of the shift cite research showing that teenagers are biologically wired to fall asleep and wake up later than younger children.

In a 2014 University of Minnesota study, most students whose school days began at 8:35 or later got a full eight hours of sleep. Direct evidence of academic impact was more mixed — the study did find decreased tardiness and improved GPAs at some schools.

The plan may also cause child care headaches for the district. Some elementary students dismissed from school earlier will require additional supervision. Nirmal said she's fortunate that her work schedule and Capitol Hill's new times will align at the end of the day.

"I have flexibility that I can come in to work earlier, leave a little earlier. I can't imagine that everybody has that luxury of leaving at 4 p.m. from work," she said.

Vanderwert said finding enough staff for the district's child care program may be a challenge. A district spokesperson said a committee has surveyed child care provider capacity citywide and will continue looking at options.

So why not start all schools at a more ideal time, like 8:30 a.m.?

"If we could start all schools at 8:30 a.m., we would do that, but it's transportation," Vanderwert said. "As long as we're providing transportation, we've got to do it in a way that we can afford."

St. Paul uses buses for three rounds of pickups and dropoffs. Starting more schools at a given time would require additional buses. A district spokesperson said the published start time plan will be cost-neutral.