by Beena Raghavendran in the Star Tribune on Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Alexis Hayden has often juggled soccer practice with academics as a sophomore at Wayzata High School. She’s seen peers nod off in early classes, exhausted from late nights of homework.
“The high school is very challenging,” she said. “It’s been said that it’s tougher than some colleges.”
Hayden was among those who cheered Monday night when she found out Minnesota’s largest high school will start at 8:20 a.m. instead of 7:30 next year — swapping start times with most of the district’s grade-schoolers, who will head to school earlier. After months of discussions and more than 1,800 online community comments, Superintendent Chace Anderson and a unanimous Wayzata school board agreed the switch would be best for the district as a whole.
The debate turned emotional at Monday night’s school board meeting, opening up questions about student well-being, logistics, the value of all students and fairness for families with two working parents. The discussion has pitted vocal parents of younger learners who didn’t want earlier starts against parents of older students, but in the end, the superintendent’s recommendation carried the day.
“I think it’s not just OK for elementary students — but the educators are telling me it’s better,” said Linda Cohen, chairwoman of the Wayzata school board.
In fall 2016, Wayzata High School will start at 8:20 a.m., and three elementary schools will start 10 minutes later. The other five elementary schools will start at 7:45 a.m., and the middle schools will start at 9:10 a.m. The plan starts elementary schools at a time that “matches their natural levels of alertness,” according to a report prepared by the district.
Two of the district’s elementary schools have started at 7:45 a.m. for 20 years, and a new elementary school opening next fall will launch with a 7:45 a.m. start time. But for five others, the vote means an earlier start.
Research shows benefits for adolescents who start school later, according to Kyla Wahlstrom at the University of Minnesota, who has surveyed school start times extensively. Later starts are linked to kids earning better grades, she found.
But change is hard for districts like Wayzata — sprawling suburban communities where school times and extracurricular activities govern many facets of family life, including dinnertime, time together on weeknights and bedtimes. Daniel Sellers, who heads up the education reform group MinnCAN, said these shifts affect families more than any systemic changes.
Nearly 20 residents addressed the board on Monday, and most of them asked the board to reconsider the superintendent’s recommendation. Some said the new start times would mean earlier bedtimes for their young children and less family time on weeknights, plus the cost of shelling out more for longer after-school care.
“We think our kids should be treated equally and carry the same weight as the secondary students,” said Fiona Kan, a parent of two young children.
Shifting the status quo
With the vote, Wayzata joins several other Minnesota districts that have swapped start times for younger and older students.
Last month, the Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose district voted for earlier start times for elementary schools and an 8:50 a.m. start time for middle and high school, after researching the possible change since 2013. The Alexandria school district approved early elementary and later middle and high school start times in 2014. St. Paul voted last month not to change high school start times, though one school is experimenting with an 8:30 a.m. start.
Anne Rodriguez, who has children in the Wayzata middle school and high school, said the board’s vote was important because of pressure on children to succeed, mental health and teen suicides.
“You cannot ignore the stress put on these kids,” she said.