Hamilton County Schools reluctant to change starting hours for classes (with video)

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photo Red Bank High School freshmen Mary Cullum, left, and Kailey Shirley, right, rest their heads while working on a graffiti assignment in art class just after 7 a.m. Thursday morning. Many Hamilton County high school students have to get up very early in the morning to get ready and make it to school for their 7-7:15 a.m. start times that can affect alertness, productivity and health.

SCHOOL START TIMESHamilton County Schools operate three busing tiers, which generally allows one bus and driver to service three different schools. Here are the three tiers with school start times:* Tier 17:15 to 7:2522 schools, all middle and high* Tier 28 to 8:3034 schools, mostly elementary* Tier 38:45 to 9:1522 schools, mostly elementary, magnet and special program schoolsPRINCIPAL POLLSuperintendent Rick Smith says an informal poll of all Hamilton County principals found that 90 percent of them favored keeping their current start times, though only 22 of 78 schools currently open before 8.THE RESEARCH SHOWSAfter Minnesota implemented later school start times, researchers found:• Improved attendance in the high school grades• Students slept an extra hour each night• Fewer students reported fewer relationship problems with peers and parents• Principals reported fewer disciplinary referralsSource: "Changing Times: Findings from the First Longitudinal Study of Later High School Start Times," National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin

Edwina Gower compares it to cigarette smoking. Nearly everyone agrees that it's bad, yet thousands still light up.

She sees a similarity in the county's practice of ringing the first school bells in the dusky hours before 8 a.m. Not many think it's ideal for teenagers to be at school so early, yet few are willing to change the current schedule.

"There isn't anybody on the other side," Gower said. "It's just like smoking. There are no pro-smoking people out there. There's no one saying 'Wow, smoking is really good for your health.'"

A growing body of research suggests that adolescents operate on a distinct biological clock and need more sleep -- nine hours is recommended -- to function at their best. In an ideal world, high schools should start later, rather than opening around 7:15 as they currently do. And parents like Gower, who has a son at Signal Mountain High, are pushing for a rollback of start times.

But school officials say there are plenty of reasons to maintain the status quo. Transportation routes, athletic schedules and after-school jobs are common reasons for avoiding a wholesale change.

"This whole idea of a system this size manipulating school start times is incredibly complicated," said Superintendent Rick Smith.

The Hamilton County Regional Health Council had planned to study the issue, but also was deterred by the complexities involved.

"As we started looking into it we just realized it was a far greater problem than we could tackle," said Ronald Blankenbaker, a retired physician who is co-chairman of the council's health policy and advocacy committee. "We've elected to just watch and see what's going to happen."

Aside from logistics, there is also a sentiment from some that getting up early and getting to school on time is an important life skill and that a change would be taking away personal responsibility.

Plus, many students and teachers here have grown accustomed to the early starts and some appreciate having more free time in the afternoon.

And the early starts do get students ready for life after school.

"It prepares you for when you get a job," said Red Bank High freshman Alex Nelson. "That way it won't be so hard to get up in the morning because you'll be used to it."

Hamilton County isn't alone in its resistance to change.

A recent study from the Tennessee Comptroller surveyed the issue, but found few districts were interested in pushing start times back, though many acknowledged the benefits of such change.

"A very small number responded that they had made changes or they had even considered making changes in the last five years or so," said report author Tara Bergfeld, a legislative research analyst at the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury. "The majority were saying this isn't anything we even want to consider."

That attitude, though, runs counter to academic research, which shows better attendance, more sleep for students and, in some cases, improved performance at middle and high schools that made start times later.

Roger Thompson, UTC associate professor of criminal justice, said teens operate on a biological clock that's different from that of adults.

"What we're doing is reversing the cycle," he said. "We're asking them to get up when they should be asleep. And we're asking them to sleep when they're wide awake."

Because of the way the body regulates melatonin, one researcher concluded that a teenager waking up at 7 a.m. is comparable to an adult waking at 4 a.m.

Thompson has made challenging early start times a personal cause. In 2008, he worked on the Chattanooga Crime Task Force Committee, which recommended schedules of 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for all middle and high schools. He would like to see school leaders examine alternatives like switching some students from yellow school buses to using using CARTA buses, which already service many neighborhoods, especially in the inner city.

He said those are the students who could benefit the most from a later bell. Not only would it help improve achievement, but a later start time means a later dismissal. So students would have less unsupervised time in the afternoon and early evening, when teens are more likely to commit crimes.

School board member Jonathan Welch said he's interested in exploring a later start time. And while complications like busing and athletic schedules do abound, he said leaders could find a way to make a change if it's deemed important.

"I think they can be overcome if we decide if we want to," he said. "People have to understand that something will change. But we do have athletics and transportation in our magnet schools and other schools that start late."

Hamilton County operates a three-tiered busing system. Pushing all school start times back by an hour would put some school dismissal times close to 5 p.m. So moving to a two-tiered system is considered the only way to ensure that no one is starting too early or going too late. Such a move is estimated to cost more than $3 million a year, because of the need to operate more buses.

But parents think the school system could find a way to make a change.

"If everybody is told this is our goal and the reason it's our goal is because it's the right thing to do in education, then it can be done," said Gower.

She and others have already contacted board members and administrators with their concerns. But now some are gearing up for a more public debate on the issue.

Jerry Baldwin, another Signal Mountain High parent, says he's getting fed up with complacency over the issue. A logistics executive at Craftworks Restaurants and Breweries, Baldwin said he thinks the district can find creative solutions to implementing change, if it wants to. And if it costs more money to do, it might ultimately be worth it .

"I'm in the restaurant business," he said. "I can serve really cheap food, but I don't."

If the issue remains unaddressed, he said he's willing to make more of a public attempt at change by amassing parents and involving the media.

"You can do things the easy way or the hard way," he said. "I'm beginning to think the only way the board is going to address this is the hard way."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.