School District survey of parents rejects late start

Officials surprised by response

By Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

A month after the Mercer Island School Board announced plans to introduce a late-start Wednesday schedule for Island students next year, which stirred concern among teachers, students and parents — those with elementary students in particular — about difficulties caused by the delayed day, the district has published the results of a community-wide survey on the issue. The Late Start Impact Survey, published last month on the district’s Web site, is now ready to view online.

In total, 1,584 parents and 537 students, grades six through 12, participated in the online questionnaire, which was posted in response to concern among the community about switching from the current early-release Monday to a late-start Wednesday. The majority of both parents and students disagree with the proposed schedule change, with 61.9 percent of parents saying they were “extremely dissatisfied” with the planned change and 59 percent of students.

School Board member Janet Frohnmayer, after viewing the survey, said she was shocked by the high number of respondents. “I was thrilled that so many people participated,” she said. “Typically around 200 people respond, so this is 10 times that amount, which is fabulous.”

The newly elected School Board vice president added that the results were not too unexpected. “I wasn’t surprised by the direction, although the consistency was interesting to me.”

According to the current MISD plan for fall 2008, all Island schools will drop their early-release Monday, when students would go home 1.5 hours early, with a late-start Wednesday, when students would begin class 1.5 hours late. The schedule change was motivated by studies showing that adolescents benefit from extra hours of sleep in the morning, according to Interim Superintendent Gary Plano. Administrators also hoped the extra morning hours would allow teachers time to prepare their lessons and meet with faculty. Many teachers, Plano added, have busy afternoon schedules and therefore struggle to make staff meetings.

Yet once the announcement was made, members of the community, especially elementary teachers and parents, pointed out that the late-start Wednesday would create a number of problems: getting children to class, transportation, day-care issues, among others. What’s more, studies also show that elementary-aged children learn best in the morning. Therefore, a late-start schedule would not benefit their academic success.

After clarifying that the schedule change was not yet official, Plano encouraged students and parents to participate in the Late Start Impact Survey, which the School Board will study and consider before making a definitive decision. Plano will also study the questionnaire and make his personal recommendations on the board during their Dec. 13 meeting.

According to survey results, 39.2 percent of parents with children enrolled in K-12 said they were “extremely satisfied with the early release schedule” while 31.8 percent were “satisfied.” Only 2.1 percent said they were “extremely dissatisfied” and 6.6 percent were “dissatisfied.” When asked their thoughts on the proposed schedule change, 64.2 percent of parents said they were “extremely dissatisfied.” Only eight percent said they were “extremely satisfied.”

When the survey was split into parents of elementary students and parents of youth grades 6 to 12, the results were somewhat divided. When asked the same question, “How do you feel about the planned change in next year’s school schedule?”, 70.4 percent of elementary parents said “extremely dissatisfied,” while 51.2 percent of high school parents replied “extremely dissatisfied.” However, in both categories, there was little support for the late-start schedule change: 4.6 percent of elementary parents said they were “satisfied,” and 10.3 percent of high school parents said they were “satisfied.”

Overall disfavor for a late-start Wednesday was also reported among students. Unlike the adults, the students were asked a more detailed question: “Considering the research on adolescents needing more sleep, how do you feel about a planned change in next year’s school schedule eliminating early-release Mondays and adopting late-start Wednesdays?” The response was predominantly negative, with 59 percent of students saying they would be “extremely dissatisfied.”

The survey went on to ask students if they participated in after-school activities, if they were likely to participate in before-school activities with the schedule change, and if they were likely to sleep in on Wednesdays, among other questions regarding habit. The majority of students replied that even if school began an hour and a half late on Wednesdays, they would not benefit from the extra morning time. Although 52.7 percent of the students said they would “sleep in” during this time (33.8 percent said they would “catch up on homework,” and 8.9 percent said they would participate in special programs), when asked if they would benefit from this extra time, 60.9 percent said it was “unlikely.” What’s more, 39 percent of students said it was “very likely” that the late-start Wednesday may cause them to be late for school.

All of these results will be carefully considered by both Plano and the School Board before an official decision on the schedule change is made on Dec. 13.

Transportation is also a primary consideration. On Nov. 29, MISD transportation officials met with Superintendent of Business Services Liz Dodd, Plano and School Board representatives to discuss the logistical possibilities of a schedule change. They presented the board with a 2008-2009 Late Start Transportation Analysis.

A number of scenarios were proposed: the initial late-start Wednesday, wherein the elementary schools would begin class at 10:45, middle school at 9:55 and at the high school at 9:30; a swapped schedule wherein the elementary schools and MIHS would switch starting times; and a split elementary and secondary schedule, wherein the Island’s three elementary schools would continue the present early-release Monday while IMS and MIHS turn to a late-start Wednesday.

In each case, the district’s current transportation system would have to be reorganized. Splitting the schedules between the Island’s primary and secondary schools would incur the most cost, in both finances and labor. If the district, which currently uses 36 buses, did not increase its fleet, it would cost an additional $25,000 per year to pay bus drivers for their extra time. Major route changes would be necessary: early morning drop-offs for elementary students, a stop reversal for morning IMS runs, and possible morning shuttles for other students. What’s more, the changes may cause confusion for many parents and students.

If the School District decides to implement a late-start Wednesday, the logistical costs would be minimal: routes would stay consistent, afternoon drop-off times would not change, and the metro impact would be manageable.

The transportation study also included a summary of two other districts — Renton and Issaquah — that had switched to a late-start schedule along with reported costs and benefits. Top complaints listed by both schools were: confusion for parents and students; decline in elementary morning ridership, high-costs for transportation accommodations, chaotic initial implementation, and problems with the half-day kindergarten program.

Plano will discuss both the Late Impact Survey and the Late Start Transportation Analysis during the School Board’s Dec. 13 meeting, after which the board will vote on whether to take back their initial move to implement a late-start Wednesday schedule.

To view the Late Start Survey Results, go to:

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