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Changing school start times to align with adolescent brain research could help the transportation department

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Crook County School District discussing whether or not to change some school start times.

Research indicates that adolescent brains are not ready to start school at 8 a.m.

Last month, three Crook County School District representatives listened in on a Bend-La Pine School District meeting that addressed school start times.

"The catalyst to all of this was the brain research that came out that is growing in popularity in the last few years, how the ideal brain time for teens to start school is actually closer to 9:00," said Crook County High School Assistant Principal Joel Hoff.

Local schools begin around 8 a.m. and are released around 3 p.m.

Barnes Butte Elementary Principal Jim Bates and CCSD Board member Gwen Carr attended the Jan. 23 Bend-La Pine meeting with Hoff at the recommendation of district leaders.

"The purpose was to understand more about the topic of start times and the conversations around busing as it relates to start times," Bates pointed out.

In September of 2016, Bend-La Pine Schools Superintendent Shay Mikalson appointed a 20-member School Start Time Advisory Committee to review current school start times for district schools.

Mikalson tasked the committee with making a recommendation to him in response to recent research released on optimal start times and community member questions and comments regarding current school start times at Bend-La Pine schools. Most middle and high schools in that district start at 7:45 a.m. with release times around 2:45 p.m. Most elementary schools begin each day at 9 a.m. and are released at 3:30 p.m.

The committee focused on three start time scenarios: Sliding start times at all levels to a later time; flipping elementary start times with middle and high school start times; and maintaining current start times.

The Crook County representatives presented the information to the Crook County School Board at a recent meeting. Hoff noted that it was not a proposal but simply a report on what they had heard at the Bend presentation.

"The topic of school start times has increasingly become a thought-provoking conversation," Bates said. "Every community has unique needs, and it's important for school administration to explore ideas that may be of benefit to our families, students and staff."

Benefits of keeping school start times the same locally would mean no disruption for families. Drawbacks include not aligning with brain research for adolescents and continued resource demands, such as transportation. The local district has struggled to fill bus driver positions in recent years.

Adjusting all local start times to 8:30 a.m. would get closer to what adolescents need. Drawbacks, however, include pushing athletics later into the evening, changes for families, and some busing issues.

Benefits of starting elementary schools at 8 a.m. and secondary schools at 8:45 a.m., for example, would align with brain research for adolescents; would create less demand for bus drivers, who would have two separate routes; have potential financial savings; less turnover for bus drivers; and reduce traffic congestion in the Crook County Middle School and Crooked River Elementary area.

Potential problems, Hoff and Bates, noted, included two different bus route times; older siblings may not be able to take care of their younger siblings; longer bus routes would need exceptions; later athletic start times; athletes would miss more school for travel; and logistical planning.

Hoff said he has not personally heard of any concerns from CCHS families about the 8 a.m. start time.

"I believe our district wants to be proactive about implementing innovative practices that align with current research regarding what is best for student learning," he said.

Bates has visited informally with families, students and community members about the topic over the last several years.

"There are a variety of opinions and needs," he said. "The research about school start times and the needs of adolescents leads us to ask if we should consider a change in start times."

Carr shared what the director for the St. Charles Sleep Center said during the Bend-La Pine meeting. If adolescents can establish a better sleep pattern, it reduces binge sleeping on weekends, and it's a healthier rhythm.

"The physician said when you change adolescent sleeping patterns, you reduce some of the mental health issues that we're seeing," Carr said.

Board member Patti Norris, who teaches college courses, says there is a perceived difference between a class that starts at 8 a.m. and one that starts at 8:30.

"They're still crawling in at 8:30. It doesn't make a huge difference," she said.

Bates said he found the presentation to be fairly compelling with information that might be of value to the local district, particularly with the transportation challenges and the brain research.

"Whether we make a change or not, it is great for the district to consistently review practices and procedures to determine if there are areas that we can refine in order to help our students and families," Hoff said.

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