SLC School District hears from parents about later high school start times

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Colleen Santelli, right, questions the school board members Monday night. The Salt Lake City Board of Education kicked off a listening tour Jan. 13, 2020 at Bryant Middle School to hear from students and parents about the possibility of implementing later school start times for the Salt Lake City school district high schools.

Nearly every parent who spoke Monday night offered a different reason for why they want their kids to start school at a later time.

One mom joked that “it’s sheer hell” trying to get her sleepy twin boys — freshmen at West High School in downtown Salt Lake City — out of bed at 6 a.m. each day. A dad pointed to his 15-year-old daughter in the audience, saying he thinks she’d do better in geography if she was not trying to understand the complexity of borders so early in the morning. And another mom said her teenager has anxiety and believes getting more rest would “make a big difference” for her mental health.

“I just think it helps in so many ways,” added parent Dave Stroud. “I support it.”

For 80 minutes, more jumped in line, filling the aisles of the school auditorium in front of the microphones to add their backing for the idea.

The public forum was the first in a “listening tour” hosted this week by the board of education for Salt Lake City School District. The point was to get feedback on the proposed plans to push back the start times at the district’s three high schools: West, East and Highland. And, at least so far, the response has been positive.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said mom Denet Barnitz. “Even 10 or 15 minutes would make a difference.”

Members of the school board have drafted five possible plans for adjusting start times. The changes range from no shift at all to 15 minutes, 30 minutes and an hour difference. Currently, the high schools in the district start at 7:45 a.m.

The board has talked about the possibility of implementing late-start on and off for at least five years. This most recent push began in the fall and appears to have the most momentum yet.

“They’re trying to consider it from all angles,” said district spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin.

Only one other district in the state has changed its start times to later in the morning — Logan City School District in northern Utah — which adjusted them in 2017 so its high school would begin at 8:45 a.m., 30 minutes later than before. Most every other school in the state starts before 8 a.m.

The hope with pushing the first bell back is to give teenagers more time to sleep. Most research shows that later start times can reduce sleep deprivation in high school students, making them less likely to experience anxiety and depression. Those nationally that have implemented the delayed starts have also reported improved academic and athletic performance, according to one often cited study from the University of Washington.

However, changing the time at the high schools in Salt Lake City School District will require changes, too, to the schedules for 33 elementary and middle schools because of busing routes. The district calls that a “ripple effect” of the proposal.

Currently, most elementary and middle schools start some time between 7:45 a.m. and 8:40 a.m.

To implement the late start, district schools would be divided into two groups. Board members would decide on a start time for the first group. The second group would start 45 minutes later, which is the time it takes for a bus driver to finish one route and start another.

The school day is then six hours and 40 minutes, and end times would adjust accordingly.

A few at the Monday meeting, which had more than 40 parents and teachers attend, had reservations.

Amberly Croft has a kid each in high school and junior high and two kids in elementary school. If the changes are made, she believes her high schooler will just stay up later each night because she’ll be able to sleep in longer.

Croft also doesn’t believe the time differences — particularly starting 15 minutes later — will make much of a difference but it will disrupt everything else, including sports. Her oldest daughter plays soccer and, Croft fears, will miss either more class or more matches because other districts in the county aren’t changing their times.

Another parent said she worries about students who take harder class loads, including International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement classes, and how starting later might push homework even longer into the night. “What are the trade-offs?” she asked.

“I feel like I can barely stay up as late as they need to already,” added mom Allyson Maughan, whose eighth and 12th graders attend West High.

Board members sat at the front of the auditorium listening to the comments and providing answers when they could. A few young kids in the audience dozed off in their seats.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” acknowledged board member Samuel Hanson.

When some asked if the proposed schedules could still be adjusted, board member Kristi Swett added that so far, this has been a “philosophical question” but having the drafts helps make it easier to talk about.

Ronnie Stroud, who is 15 and a sophomore at West High, said she likes the plans. She usually falls asleep at 10 or 11 p.m. and said it’s difficult to wake up at 6 a.m. to get ready for class.

“It’s hard to wake your brain up,” she said. “I’m usually late to school and miss out on the first few minutes of classes.”

West High has already tested late-starts on Mondays with school beginning at 9:30 a.m. Stroud said that has made a noticeable difference with her attention and success.

Jenny Nicholas, who teaches at West, joked that some of her students are comatose in the morning and more often are late to class. “I wonder if we’re starting them up for failure by asking them to be there before they can succeed,” she added.

The board commissioned Y2 Analytics, a Utah-based market research firm, to study the idea of changing school start times. Most parents — 80% — supported the idea.

But families that fall in lower income brackets or are minorities were less likely to back the idea. Many cited their jobs and child care as the biggest hurdles. Some also worried about the impact on students who contribute to their family finances by working after-school jobs.

“The board is trying to be mindful of those who are opposed and the pretty big issues they face," Chatwin said.

Board members hope to make a decision by spring. There will be three more listening sessions in the community this week:

  • Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, at 6 p.m. at Northwest Middle School.

  • Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, at 6 p.m. at Hillside Middle School.

  • Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, at 10 a.m. at the Glendale Public Library.

More information on the plans and individual schools can be found at: www.slcschools.org/departments/late-start-information.