Why Cherry Creek School Board Voted to Change Start Times

Why Cherry Creek School Board Voted to Change Start Times
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Last night, March 13, the Cherry Creek School District voted unanimously to move start times later for middle- and high-school students and earlier for children in elementary schools. The changes have broad but not universal support from older students and their folks. However, a group of elementary-school parents were unhappy enough with them to have started a change.org petition that rejected alterations for their kids with extreme prejudice.

Right now, Cherry Creek high-school students must be at their desks by 7:10 a.m., while middle-schoolers in the district typically arrive between 7:50 a.m. and 8:10 a.m., and elementary-age students show up at 9 a.m. The new approach, which underwent minor adjustments at a February 13 school board meeting, mixes up those numbers. In the future, elementary-school students will be the first to start class, at 8 a.m., just over an hour earlier than before, with high-school students coming next, at 8:20 a.m., more than an hour later than they do now, and middle schools would get under way last, at 8:50 a.m.

Tustin Amole, CCSD's director of communication, says the district's successful campaign to change the start times was rooted in the difficulties teens have in dealing with the current schedule.

"For years, we've heard complaints, especially from high-school parents, that the 7:10 a.m. start time was way too early," Amole says. "They tell us their kids can't go to bed early. It's not that they can't try. It's because their circadian rhythms don't let them. That's backed up by a lot of research" — much of it collected at the school start page on the district's website.

This graphic shows the final recommendations for start times, which were adopted by the Cherry Creek School Board last night.
This graphic shows the final recommendations for start times, which were adopted by the Cherry Creek School Board last night.

For these reasons, Amole continues, "we decided about a year and a half ago to sit down and study the matter — to see what would work, what we could do. So we started a process, met with different groups, including different parent groups, as part of Cherry Creek 2021, a series of community forums we held around what graduation would look like in the year 2021: changes in graduation requirements, changes in the workforce, what students had to be prepared for when they got out into the world of work and higher education. And one of the things that repeatedly came up was discussion around later start times for high-school students."

At that point, the district launched a survey on the subject and tried to get as many people as possible to participate. Amole notes that "we called every home in the district to let them know about the survey and where it could be found, and we also used social media and put it on our website. We ended up with more than 25,000 responses, and of those, 73 percent of people showed support for later start times for our high schools."

Changing the start times for high-schoolers required juggling at other scholastic levels. "This way, things will be a little more efficient," Amole says, adding that "this is a cost-neutral proposal. It won't cost more to implement."

Nonetheless, the district received considerable pushback to the notion of starting elementary school earlier, even though the switch is actually something of a flashback.

This graphic shows the breakdown of survey votes for a variety of start-time options.EXPAND
This graphic shows the breakdown of survey votes for a variety of start-time options.

"Years and years ago, elementary schools started at 8 a.m.," Amole points out. "It was during a recession, and there had been some financial challenges around paying for transportation. So the district had middle schools start a little later and elementary schools start later."

Now, however, elementary-school parents are accustomed to the 9 a.m. start, and moving it an hour earlier "has received a lot of resistance," Amole acknowledges. "Some parents say that starting earlier would be difficult with their work schedule."

That's hardly their only complaint. The aforementioned petition, "Cherry Creek Parents Against Early Start Times," lists seven major causes for concern, ranging from "Transportation Safety" to "Athletics/After School Activities." We've reproduced the text below, drawn from a letter to the Cherry Creek Board of Education. At this writing, the petition has collected 385 signatures.

These arguments didn't dissuade the school board, whose members agreed with the district's suppositions. "The whole point of this exercise was to do what's best for kids, to provide the best possible learning environment," Amole stresses. "And research demonstrates that adolescents do better with later start times. There's less absenteeism, higher achievement, fewer disciplinary issues. Overall, it's much better for them."

As for the objections from elementary-school parents, Amole is sympathetic. "We understand that change can be difficult. But it's impossible to have a schedule that works best for everyone. We have 54,000 kids at the Cherry Creek School District," and she feels that the decision is one "they believe will be right for them."

Here's the text from the elementary-school parents' petition.

Why Cherry Creek School Board Voted to Change Start Times (4)
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Cherry Creek Parents Against Early Start Times

Deny the Proposed Start Time of 7:55 a.m. for Cherry Creek School District Elementary Schools

Dear Board of Education,

We, the families of students at Cherry Creek School District elementary schools, are extremely concerned and in strong opposition to the proposed 7:55 a.m. start time. This change will negatively impact our children:

1. Transportation Safety: The “Start Time — Proposed Change” (slide 12) refers to elementary students as the “most vulnerable students.” As such, our young children’s safety must be in the forefront. If the new start time is adopted, young children will be waiting at the bus stops or walking to school in the dark/dawn during some months of the year. This is unsafe for our young children.

The “Start Time – Proposed Change” (slide 12) recommendation to follow “civil twilight” hours will not sufficiently address the concern for our children’s safety. For example, in December the average sunrise time is 7:14 a.m. and in January the average sunrise time is 7:19 a.m.

2. Poor Academic Performance: We urge you to look at the study conducted at the University of Kentucky that found earlier elementary school start times were a risk factor for poor school performance. The study finds that elementary start times are associated with academic achievement. Their research also indicates that the trend of altering middle and high school start times later at the expense of elementary schools "may simply be shifting the problem from adolescents to younger children, instead of eliminating it altogether.”

3. Sleep: This proposal will negatively impact our young children by depriving them of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 9 to 11 hours of sleep for school-aged children, ages 5 to 10. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that even 30 minutes of extra sleep for “children ages 7 to 11 resulted in significant improvement in their ability to regulate their emotions, including limiting restless-impulsive behavior in school.”

With the recommended start time, this would suggest elementary aged children would need to go to bed VERY early, even as early as 6:30 p.m. This would be a challenge for many families. While it is nice to think children will go to bed earlier, this will cut in to family-meals, family-time or simply not be possible with evening sports or older siblings.

4. Absence: There will likely be an increase in tardiness, absences and illnesses due to an earlier start time. Parents will be reluctant to send kids to school with inadequate sleep.

5. Length of Day: An early start time will put children in school and aftercare for longer hours. They will go to school earlier, yet still be picked up in aftercare at the same time. This will make for a very long day.

6. After School Care: The recommended dismissal time of 2:40 p.m. is too early for working parents to be home in time for their young children. In addition, some families rely on their middle or high school children to babysit their younger ones. This would not be an option as the older children would still be in school. We do not want our young children coming home to an empty house or waiting at home alone for longer periods of time. They are less self-sufficient than older children and need the care and help of an adult. The earlier start and dismissal time will require more money spent on childcare, and less parent-child time. This is not good for families, for kids or for our community.

7. Athletics/After School Activities: Young children are coached by parents, who are not able to leave work and coach at 3 p.m. In addition, many after-school activities are not scheduled until well after 3 p.m.

For these and many other reasons, we ask that the Cherry Creek School District Board of Education deny the proposed 7:55 a.m. start time for elementary schools. We appreciate the view of those supporting this change to better benefit adolescent sleep patterns. However, such change should not be at the sacrifice and detriment of the elementary school students’ sleep, development, safety and academic success.

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