Reception mixed on ASD proposal to switch school start times around

Community members gather inside Lake Hood Elementary to learn about potential school start time changes. (Photo by Victoria Petersen, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The Anchorage School District is considering a huge change. The district is looking at implementing new school start times, with elementary schools starting earlier and high schools later.

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The district held a series of open houses recently to educate the community and hear feedback.

At the first open house for school start times, poster boards are set up on tables inside Lake Hood Elementary. Parents, teachers and community members were gathered around tables, talking with school district personnel about the potential start time changes.

Pamela Witwere, a parent and a teacher at Gladdyswood elementary school, says she’s worried about the potential change.

“I have major concerns because my kids aren’t early risers, and many of the families that I work with, none of their kids are early risers,” Witwere said. “So these aren’t kids that are up at 6 a.m. They struggle to get to school at 9 as it is,”

Witwere isn’t alone. Nearly every parent and teacher interviewed at the open house expressed similar concerns.

The school district is proposing the change in an effort to improve attendance, reduce tardiness and increase graduation rates. The school district cites national research that suggests middle schoolers and high schoolers do better with later start times and and younger students benefit from starting earlier.

Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop says the open houses are an opportunity to gather input about the new start times.

“This change isn’t as simple as just change the start time and everybody will be happy. The entire community is nearly affected, so we wanted to be sure that we data sourced it,” Bishop said.

Bishop says she recognizes that switching elementary schools to an earlier start time will not be easy and she understands the change would ripple throughout the community. Childcare is a big issue — making sure daycare providers are able to adjust their schedules to match the school district. Bishop says the district would hope to tackle that issue through partnerships with local nonprofits.

“We would never want a parent to be stressed from just having a family, and running a family, and getting to work on time, and getting to school and back and forth, and getting food on the table. All those things are real life worries and actions for our families, so we wouldn’t want the school to put extra stress on families,” Bishop said.

The school district is proposing four scenarios, one of which is no change to the schedule at all. The other scenarios have high schoolers starting at 8:30 am or after, and the elementary students starting no later than 7:45 am.

Last year, a student created an online petition that urged the school district to study later school start times for high schoolers. The petition gathered thousands of signatures and pushed the school district to hire Western Demographics to study the issue.

Shannon Bingham is leading the research team. He says it’s clear high schoolers benefit from later start times. But the research isn’t as conclusive on elementary kids starting earlier.

“So as far as the quantity of research that’s out there, there’s significantly less. So some of the minority opinions and some of the more recent research is saying earlier start times are not necessarily good for elementary school children either.”

But Bingham says the research they conducted on elementary students showed that younger children who had to wake up earlier weren’t negatively impacted.  .

Jose Lopez attended the Lake Hood open house with his wife and three children. He thinks it would be hard for elementary kids to make the switch.

“I have three kids that attend school early. I kind of have a hard time making the younger kids start earlier than the older kids,” Lopez said.

The Anchorage School District says the comments received so far have been mixed. Parents of middle and high school students tend to be in favor of the change, while parents of elementary students are not.

The Anchorage School Board will make a decision later this year, and any change will be implemented in the 2019-2020 school year.

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