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Boston eyes later start times for high schools

Boston School Committee Chairman Michael O’Neill is pushing later start times for high school students. Photo by Bill Brett for boston.com

Bill Brett for the Boston Globe/file 2016

Boston School Committee Chairman Michael O’Neill is pushing later start times for high school students.

The Boston school system is wading into the contentious debate about whether high school students should start classes later in the morning in an effort to increase academic achievement, punctuality, and attendance.

Boston School Committee Chairman Michael O’Neill is pushing the idea and earlier this month asked Superintendent Tommy Chang to craft a pilot program that would try out later start times at a small group of high schools.

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In making his pitch, O’Neill pointed to a growing body of research that indicates teenagers would benefit if school started later.

“If students are highly engaged and get better academic performance because of a change in time, that is pretty powerful,” O’Neill said in an interview. “I think it’s definitely an idea worth considering.”

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The push for a later start time has been catching fire across the state in recent years. A handful of districts, such as Nauset Regional High School on Cape Cod, have pushed back their start times to 8:30 a.m. or later, while Newton, Burlington, and dozens of other school systems are debating the idea.

The movement is fueled by research that has revealed a change in the biology of teenagers that delays their sleep-and-wake-up cycles by about two hours, putting their natural bedtime at 11 p.m. or later. That, in turn, can rob them of the 8 1/2 or 9 1/2 hours of sleep they need, if they have to get up before dawn.

But critics counter that a later dismissal will leave little time for sports, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, or family obligations.

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In Boston, more than half of the system’s nearly three dozen high schools start at 7:30 a.m. or earlier, according to a Globe review. That’s more than an hour earlier than the 8:30 a.m. or later start time recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations.

By contrast, about three dozen of the system’s elementary and K-8 schools start at 9:30 a.m., and many parents at those schools are pushing for earlier start times to prevent dismissals after sunset.

Boston school officials have been hesitant to tinker with high school start times, even as a growing number of teachers, parents, and students push for a later opening bell. Just a handful of the city’s high schools — most of which have autonomy to set their own schedules and have specialized programs — start at 8:30 a.m. or later.

But the school system also has been facing political pressure to delay start times. The City Council last fall held a public hearing on the idea. The hearing was sponsored by Councilors Matt O’Malley and Annissa Essaibi-George, who, as a teacher at East Boston High School, saw first-hand countless numbers of sleepy students struggling to make the 7:30 a.m. opening bell.

Essaibi-George said the hearing led to meetings with school officials who appeared to be warming to the idea of trying it out and thought something would be pursued for this fall, but then the effort stopped abruptly.

“I think this would have the greatest impact on our high school students’ academic success, yet we continue to stall,” Essaibi-George said. “At some point, we need to try something different.”

Chang, a former high school teacher and principal, said in an interview that the School Department will continue researching the issue.

“There seems to be growing evidence that adolescents do benefit from a later start time,” Chang said.

But he also pointed out complications, such as rearranging schedules for buses and sports.

A move to later start times, for instance, could result in adding bus routes to the 8:30 a.m. time frame — the peak hour of busing, according to school officials who responded to O’Neill’s request during a School Committee meeting on Feb. 1.

O’Neill questioned during that meeting how much of a barrier transportation would present, given that few high school students are bused.

The School Department has been reaching out to students on the issue and held a town-hall style meeting last month with the Boston Student Advisory Council, which generated mixed reactions, according to school officials and the organization.

Crystal Aneke, a senior at the O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Roxbury who attended the town hall meeting, represents the dilemma many students face. While she hates waking up before dawn to make it to school before 7:30 a.m., she likes getting out before 2 p.m.

“The earlier the better — you are able to experience the rest of the day,” said Aneke, O’Bryant’s student body president and a member of the Boston Student Advisory Council.

Michael Maguire, a teacher at Boston Latin Academy, which starts at 7:20 a.m., said changing high school start times is long overdue.

“The kids are coming to school tired, carrying their Dunkin’ Donuts cups or Red Bulls,” Maguire said. “I always have kids late to homeroom, especially if they are coming from Brighton or East Boston.”

Jeffrey Klug, a Latin Academy parent who also favors a later start time, added that “everything else the School Department tries to do to improve high school is undercut by not starting high school later.”

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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