Beaufort Co. schools will let each area determine its start times. How to weigh in

Beaufort County School Board has begun considering how it’ll change school start times across the district, after a unanimous May vote to allow each school cluster — each high school and the schools that feed into it — in the county to determine which of its schools should start first.

The Board of Education operations committee, comprising board of education members David Striebinger, William Smith and John Dowling, voted unanimously Wednesday to gather public opinion on start times through an online survey to staff and parents and town halls for community comments.

“The only thing is, I think the only feedback we want is parents, teachers and staff,” Striebinger said to kick off the discussion. “General community I don’t think really has a balanced standing in all of this.”

Smith disagreed, saying that this could discount other student guardians and his constituents that do not like surveys, but agreed to coordinate town halls on the issue.

District spokesman Jim Foster said the survey would be sent to teachers and parents, who will get robocalls and email reminders about it.

The policy’s history

Currently, elementary schools across the district begin at 7:45 a.m., and middle and high schools at 8:45 a.m.

This began in 2016 under then-superintendent Jeff Moss, who advocated for flipping the previous start times due to what the district hailed as a successful pilot program at Hilton Head Island schools and based on American Academy of Pediatrics research that showed teenagers are less productive in the morning and more prone to drowsy driving and inattention in morning classes.

“We’re seeing fewer students late to school, fewer disciplinary referrals and more students on the Honor Roll,” said then-Hilton Head Island High Principal Amanda O’Nan in 2016. “I can’t imagine going back.”

But since district-wide implementation, math and English scores have both decreased by more than 20 percentage points. SC READY scores have decreased slightly in English and held steady in math over the same period. Graduation rates across the district have increased slightly.

Parents and students have also raised issues with the policy, citing safety concerns for elementary schoolers at bus stops in the early morning and late nights for older students with jobs, games or practice after school.

“On a personal level, my husband has to leave work 2 hours early every day to pick my daughter up from school since I can no longer get to her when she gets out of 5th grade,” one parent wrote in response to a 2019 survey by the district’s teacher-run Professional Advocacy Council.

Nearly 40 percent of parents and a third of teachers surveyed said they believed the change in start times had a negative impact, outnumbering respondents who viewed the start time change positively in both categories.

Another teacher responded to the survey to say they hadn’t seen changes in student behavior or test scores after the start time change, but “this has a larger impact than my personal classroom.”

“Even students who have jobs would have a benefit from an earlier start time by having to get out of work at earlier times, so they can see their families, get homework completed, watch their siblings, etc,” the teacher said.

In 2017, the board considered changing the start times again after backlash from parents.

A poll of the board of education at that time by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette showed that most members favored keeping secondary school schedules the same, but starting elementary schools a little later.

“In general, it’s working pretty well, but it seems like the parents of younger students are having more issues,” said Christina Gwozdz, now the board’s chairwoman. “Have we surveyed the parents and staff about this? I don’t think we have.”

However, Moss recommended keeping the schedules the same at the time, saying “15 minutes is not really going to do a whole lot” and “if the board elects to do something, it needs to be something more dramatic.”

In the end, the board didn’t take any votes on start times before the school year began, though the student services committee said they would continue to look at a shift for elementary schools to start 15 minutes later.

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.