When a district talks about adjusting school start times and schedules, there's sure to be hearty debate from all sides of the community. Case in point: An argument has simmered for months in Palatine Township Elementary District 15 about a proposed early dismissal day. And Barrington Unit District 220 is considering a schedule change of its own, to end the high school's first semester in December instead of January.
Other suburban districts have made adjustments over the years to meet demands of cost, student achievement, transportation or safety. It's an emotional issue because decisions can disrupt parents' work schedules and child care, students' after-school activities and teachers' workdays. But such discussions are essential, because any reasonable way to increase student learning without adding to education costs certainly is worthwhile.
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Earlier this month, Arne Duncan, the reform-minded U.S. education secretary, urged local districts nationwide to take a look at starting high school later in the day, citing research on teen brains. Science tells us that teenagers are geared biologically for staying up and sleeping in later than younger children. Many of them are still in a sleep zone when their first period class begins.
Younger students more typically would be capable of thriving with an earlier start. But some elementary districts are wary of starting early for reasons including safety in getting to school. So even years after the research, many suburban districts start high schools well before 8 a.m. and elementary schools closer to 9 a.m.
While we're not advocating any specific change in any schedule, we have to ask, who wouldn't want kids to be at the top of their circadian cycle when they walk into school?
The president of the nation's largest teachers union has the right idea about such changes. During a visit last week with the Daily Herald Editorial Board, Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association said that if he could have rewritten Duncan's remarks, "What I would have had him to say is, 'I encourage local districts to sit down with parents, community, and the employees, and talk about this to say -- based on this research -- what do we want to do differently, instead of saying here's what you ought to do.' It's a wonderful conversation."
In other words, it's not a top-down decision but one that must be made collaboratively. School boards, administrators, teachers and parents together should to take these ideas seriously and with open minds, always -- and this is important -- with the overriding goal of doing what's best for learning. The needs of students must take precedence over the convenience of others.
District 220 is on the track with its proposal. An Input 220 Advisory Council made up of 35 parents, community members and teachers has researched the scheduling issue and called for comments online. A public hearing is set for Tuesday before a final vote in October. A new school calendar in Elgin Area School District U-46 came about similarly, reflecting comments from the community.
Scheduling is only one of the many factors in students' ability to learn, but it shouldn't be overlooked. Finding the right balance though a collaborative effort will help ensure they have the best chance to achieve.