School board considers delaying high school start time

OKEECHOBEE — Should the Okeechobee High School day start later?

On Jan. 14 the Okeechobee County School Board held a workshop on the subject of school start times, specifically on moving the high school’s start time later.

The board heard information on the science behind sleep patterns in adolescents, along with data on how other school districts in Florida with a later high school start time perform on their tests and the number of absences they have compared to high schools with an early start time, and heard from residents in the district who came out to voice their opinion.

No final vote was taken on the matter of high school start times at this meeting as it was scheduled only to be a workshop to gather information on the subject.

Okeechobee superintendent of schools Ken Kenworthy opened the workshop by introducing Dr. Serena Vidanage, pediatrician and clinical director at Dr. Fred Brown Children’s Health Center, who presented the latest research on adolescent sleep patterns to help the board make an informed decision.

“Evidence has shown that early school start times are a key contributor to insufficient sleep,” Dr. Vidange explained. “When we talk about factors that affect insufficient sleep in adolescents, puberty plays a prominent role. At the time of pubertal onset, teenagers experience sleep-wake based delay. Which means they fall asleep later and have a later sleep onset and wake up later as well. This can be a change of up to two hours compared to middle schoolers.”

Dr. Vidange explained that teens lack of sleep can be a complex problem that can include homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs and use of technology, but that the natural change in an adolescents circadian rhythm in addition to early school start times is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation.

Dr. Vidrange also referenced a report published in 2014 by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) which called for high schools to delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later to better align with the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents. Currently Okeechobee High School has a start time of 7:05 a.m.

“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common and easily fixable public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, MD, AAP, in the policy statement referenced by Dr. Vidrange. “The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life.”

“Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn,” Dr. Owens concluded in the policy statement.

Dr. Vidrange also stated that studies have shown that delayed school start times don’t cause students to go to bed later.

Superintendent Kenworthy then presented results from a survey the school district sent to parents, students and teachers on the issue of delaying school start times.

In the survey 51 percent of respondents were not in favor of delaying start times while 48 percent were in favor. In a survey that consisted of just high school students 52 percent said that delaying the start time would impact them positively.

Mr. Kenworthy also presented data gathered from high schools in Florida which showed, on average, that schools with later start times had significantly less absences than schools with earlier start times.

One major hurdle to changing start times is the issue of transportation. Currently the Okeechobee school district has a three-tier system in place for their bus schedule.

Elementary, middle school, and high school students each ride separately. But due to the limited number of buses, moving the high school start time would mean combining two of the tiers. In the survey published by the school district, most respondents favored combining the middle school and high school tiers.

One of the options presented to the school board for combining the tiers had the elementary starting at 7:40 a.m. with the middle and high schools started around 9 a.m.

This two-tier system would also have the benefit of saving the district $234,396 in transportation costs, but would result in longer ride times for some students. Another option had elementary beginning at 9 a.m. with middle school and high school starting around 8 a.m., although this would mean elementary schools would need more before-care in the morning for their students.

Representatives from all three tiers of schools were asked to give their opinion of changing school start times. OHS principal Dylan Tedders expressed his skepticism of the proposal.

“I worked at Yearling for 14 years and I know that if something happens at the high school and the bus can’t get off campus for even 2 or 3 minutes, that will translate into 30, 40 minutes at the middle school,” said Mr. Tedders of the busing situation. “I have a son that’s in college and he has to get up at five in the morning to go to workouts. If he hadn’t already had to get up in the morning he’d probably already be back home. They have to learn to adapt to our system. I couldn’t imagine our high school starting at 9 a.m. and doing anything from an activity standpoint after school.”

OHS swim coach Jack Boon also addressed the school board.

“Changing the start times for these schools won’t make any difference in grades,” said Mr. Boon. “The kids that are going to pass are going to pass and the kids that are going to fail are going to fail. My swimmers get the least amount of sleep out of anyone in this county.

They are on deck at 4 a.m. and they aren’t released until 6 a.m. to go to school. The grade point average for my team is 3.84 for the girls and 3.6 for the boys. Changing times won’t make anyone more motivated. They’ll find an excuse to still be tardy.”

School board member Joe Arnold thanked everyone in attendance at the conclusion of the meeting.

“I appreciate everyone coming out and giving input tonight,” Mr. Arnold said. “It’s unfortunate that the state government won’t just give us enough money for buses so that we can build everything around the research. We always need to focus on student achievement and we need to always be open minded and looking for ways to improve this district. Whether we move forward with this or not, I think in the future we will always be looking for innovative ways to improve student performance.”

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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