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Decatur High School Principal Defends Earlier Start Time

DHS Principal Lauri McKain defends proposed new school schedule in which the high school would open 50 minutes earlier this fall

Parents of sleepy teenagers have been complaining about a proposed schedule change for City Schools of Decatur that would open both the high school and middle school at 7:45 a.m. Today, one administrator publicly defended it.

The school board  will vote on the 2011-2012 Fifth Avenue Academy Transportation Plan tonight. Under the new proposal, Decatur High School and Renfroe Middle School would hold classes from  7:45 to 2:45; that's 50 minutes earlier for Decatur High, and 45 minutes earlier for Renfroe. Oakhurst and Clairemont elementary schools would open 8 a.m.to 2 p.m.; Winnona Park and Glennwood would remain at 8:15 to 2:45 p.m., and Fifth Avenue would open later, from 8:30 to 3:30 p.m.

The new schedules were proposed to accommodate a new bus schedule designed to get students to Fifth Avenue Academy, which will open this fall. Residents have levied criticism at the new plan on the Decatur Metro blog, including former Decatur School Board candidate Garrett Goebel.

"The research is very clear that earlier start times correlate with students getting less sleep," noted Goebel. "Problems with physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychological well being increase when people don’t get sufficient sleep."

Today, Decatur High School principal Lauri McCain emailed parents defending the earlier start time, which she says "will allow our faculty to move early morning activities to more student, teacher, and family-friendly times in the afternoon and help our large population of athletes get home earlier after practice. "

McKain write: "Currently, many of our AP and band students arrive at school between 7 and 7:15 for rehearsals and mandatory sessions that leave them exhausted long before the dismissal bell sounds.  We plan to have a time after school for tutorial, meaning no practices will start before that time. "

The new schedule should boost attendance at after-school tutorials, McCain said, because "students are already in the building and are not rushing off to an athletic practice. This immutable time for academic support is vital as we continue to increase expectations and rigor for all of our students."

When school ends at 3:30, athletic practices begin at 4 p.m.,  making it more difficult to share practicing spaces, McCain wrote.

"I heard from many parents that their students were getting home very late, often 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m.  Also, we had trouble getting athletes to afternoon events (especially outside the perimeter) considering most of our competitors got out at 3pm or earlier. At times, athletes need to leave for their events before school ends, causing them to miss valuable instructional time. 

"We believe that moving up practices and game departures by just 15 minutes will reduce stress on coaches, athletes and their families," wrote McCain.

McCain also noted that "all the other schools in the district had to be considered and staggered due to shared buses. There were a variety of options and topics discussed."

Decatur Superintendent Phyllis Edwards "listened intently as principals discussed feedback from teachers and parents about research around teenagers and optimal school performance," wrote McKain.  Research that the peak start time is around 10:00 a.m., which is not an option, McCain wrote.

"When given the choice to be the first school to start or the last, the above reasons weighed heavily in my preference for an earlier start time," wrote McCain. " I believe the students will successfully adjust."

"Some of our neighboring high schools start earlier-or within 15 minutes of that time. I am confident Decatur's students will be able to do so as well," noted McCain.

Goebel publicly urged parents to attend today's meeting (see agenda)  or to contact Decatur School Board members  to voice opinions on the new schedule, noting "our actions speak much louder than our words."

"It says volumes that the most frequently stated reasons given to justify earlier start times at RMS and DHS are: transportation, extra-curricular activities, and getting to and from work," commented Goebel. "It is notable that academics rarely enters the conversation. In my opinion, this is clearly a case of the tail wagging the dog."

Susan Eppley April 12, 2011 at 05:43 PM
I couldn't agree more with Goebel. As a former teacher and as a parent coach, it is egregious that extra-curricular activities are taking priority over academics. Today's children are over-scheduled, earlier start times to the day will only make this problem worse! If there is not time for band practice in the afternoon because the students are getting enough sleep and working on their school work, so be it!
Meg Clark April 13, 2011 at 01:06 PM
As a child care provider I not only completely agree with all of Susan's points, but I also think the idea of changing times is ridiculous! It's hard enough to coordinate pick up at the schools with release times like they are; how am I supposed to get my staff to our facility nearly an hour earlier so that we can prepare for the children to arrive and go get them? And with such a spread (an hour and a half! 2-3:30!) how am I supposed to plan any sort of activity for the kids to enjoy when they're still waiting on half the camp to get there? I understand the City's perspective, but I don't think they're considering everyone in making this decision. On another note, could you please make the decision NOW so that we can start planning for next school year?!
L.Ford April 13, 2011 at 01:58 PM
Research shows that LATER is better for students who desperately need their sleep!! Earlier is not the answer for the students; Earlier is only going to help the adults get what they want out of this. Are we concerned more about athletics or students being awake enough to pay attention in school and becoming SMART!!!! My child is involved in sports , but sports is SECONDARY!!

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