Columbia Public Schools to explore student interest in taking early-morning classes

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 | 6:29 p.m. CST; updated 10:11 a.m. CST, Thursday, February 14, 2013

COLUMBIA — High school principals will be asking their students to help the Columbia School Board weigh the merits of a transportation plan with a 9 a.m. to 4:05 p.m. high school schedule.

Plans call to complete the information gathering before a March 11 meeting of the Columbia School Board.

"There will be a prepared report," district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said. "I don’t know if it’s going to be a survey — it could be any number of ways. We haven’t made that determination yet."

The district is in the process of deciding on a transportation schedule that would have three time slots, or tiers. So far, there are six plans under consideration.

On Monday, the board heard from Superintendent Chris Belcher on his favorite plan. This latest plan, also supported by First Student busing company, starts middle and seven elementary schools first, all other elementary schools second and high schools last.

At the meeting, concern was raised about high school students' ability to participate in extracurricular activities and sports with a 4:05 dismissal time. Hickman High School students currently get out at 2:51 p.m. and Rock Bridge High School students at 3 p.m.

To address concerns and questions, the district wants student input.

Jolene Yoakum, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said high school students have already selected their courses for next school year, but their decisions might change if the school's hours become 9 a.m. to 4:05 p.m.

She said the district should figure out whether high school students would change their minds on their course schedules because they could take zero-hour or online classes.

"They may have jobs or family obligations outside of the school day," Yoakum said, adding that these could change the landscape of their schedule for the day.

On a limited basis, zero-hour classes are offered at high schools now before the normal school day, which starts at 7:45 a.m. at Hickman and 7:50 a.m. at Rock Bridge.

Zero-hour options will be expanded next year, and online classes will also be an option for students, Yoakum said. 

"I’m excited because I think we are going to be better able to serve our students at this point," she said. "I don’t think online courses are for everybody, but certainly we can utilize that better. Distance learning is kind of the way the world is going in many areas."

Yoakum said principals are making what she called "communication systems" for their individual high schools to ask about personal schedule challenges, school activities and sports. She said principals might meet with student interest groups to get their thoughts on scheduling and zero-hour and online opportunities.

"Definitely, students will be contacted," she said, also acknowledging that the window to get this information before the March 11 meeting is short.

Now that most board members have shown support for this transportation option, Baumstark said the administration has to make it work with programs and activities offered in high schools.

At the Monday meeting, Christine King, the board's vice president, expressed some reservations about the latest plan. She said it is vital that the new schedule doesn't deter students from participating in extracurricular activities.

"I always worry about school engagement," King said. "We know the more activities or the more kids that are involved in activities, sports and groups, the more engaged they are in school in general."

King said if principals get the sense that a large number of students want to take a zero-hour class before school at 9 a.m., then starting school at that time may not be the best option.

She said the strong, negative reaction the board received at a Jan. 14 meeting to a 7:20 a.m. high school start time might have been expressed in a moment of panic. 

King said students she has talked to, mostly friends of her own kids, have said they do not prefer a 9 a.m. start time over a 7:30 a.m. one. 

"I think people are starting to process what they asked for," King said. 

The district is switching to a three-tier system from a two-tier system because it's grown so much over the years. Battle High School is opening; two elementary schools are coming in the next few years; and a districtwide realignment of school attendance zones will start in the fall.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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