Following outcry, Columbia School Board concedes proposal for start times must change

Monday, January 14, 2013 | 10:46 p.m. CST; updated 1:49 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Proposed changes to school start times were discussed Monday at a Columbia School Board meeting. Under the proposal, the school day would go from 7:20 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for high school students, 8:10 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. for middle school students and 9:10 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. for elementary school students.

COLUMBIA — Parents, students and administrators told the Columbia School Board on Monday night that early start times for high schools are a detriment to health and education, as board members conceded a proposal with new school start times would likely be needed. 

Three-tier transportation, a controversial proposal raised at the Sept. 21 school board meeting, would shift school start times, with high schools starting at 7:20 a.m. to accommodate the new bus system. Linda Quinley, chief financial officer for Columbia Public Schools, said it would cost the district $500,000 next year to keep its current two-tier transportation system, in which high schools start at 7:50 a.m.

More than 100 people packed the district's headquarters Monday, and said repeatedly that the proposed system simply would not work. 

Eli Byerly-Duke, a junior at Hickman High School, said the new start times would impede his ability to stay involved in extracurricular activities.

"I am already active in too many clubs for my own good," Byerly-Duke said amid laughter from the crowd. "I will not be working at my best. I simply will not be there. I ask you from the bottom of my heart, please do not make me take Calculus 3 at 7:30 a.m."

Two speakers, including Rock Bridge High School sophomore Jillian Dos Santos, said high school students' circadian rhythms would be incompatible with an early start time, and cited research from Start School Later, an advocacy group that compares sleep patterns with academic performance. 

“Some might say, oh, well just tell your kid to go to bed earlier,” said Dos Santos, who created Students' Say, a Twitter and Facebook page that opposes the district's proposal. “Well, it’s really not that easy. We have later biological clocks.”

Parent Shannon Cary criticized a district survey that sought input on the proposal.

It was unclear and did not have academic performance listed as a factor for consideration, Cary said. The survey did not list school start times for parents to choose from.

Despite the negative feedback, Christine King, board member and Columbia Public Transportation committee chair, presented the district's case for the three-tier system.

“Make no mistake, everything we do in this room is about kids first,” King said. “No matter what is decided, we will receive negative feedback.”

Superintendent Chris Belcher said the main issue now was not whether to switch to a three-tier system but the order of start times.

The consensus on the board, though, was that high schools would probably start second, not first. And middle schools would start first, with elementary schools beginning last. 

The board will vote on start times in February.

The board also discussed lunch policy for high school students. Currently, all high schools students can leave campus for lunch. The board is considering limiting these open lunches to 11th and 12th grade students.

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