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What Time Should Seattle Schools Start? District Wants Your Opinion

Cindy Jatul teaches biology/biotech at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. She says her first-period students are often too sleepy to learn.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Cindy Jatul teaches biology/biotech at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. She says her first-period students are often too sleepy to learn.

What time should the school day begin? That’s the question an online survey is asking Seattle parents through this weekend.

To get a sense of what’s at stake, just visit a first-period class at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. At 7:50 a.m., you'll find biology/biotech teacher Cindy Jatul coaxing her students into wakefulness, and having a hard time, too.

On one recent morning, she asked her class a question about hippos, the land animal most closely related to whales. “OK, so they were four-legged, they walked on land.” No response from the students. “What category of animal?” she prompted, before trying again. “What category of animal are whales?” The answer is mammals. “This is an easy one,” she said.

After a long, awkward silence, someone squeaked out an answer. It's just one of many long awkward silences heard in the class that morning. “They just sit there like bumps on a log,” Jatul said. The reason is clear, she said: Her first-period students are too sleepy to learn.

So why don’t they just go to bed earlier? “Well, they could go to bed earlier, but they would lie there, not being able to sleep. It doesn’t help.”

Jatul said the science is clear. Once kids hit puberty, they don’t get sleepy until around 11 p.m. And they need to sleep in. It has to do with hormones.

Lots of teachers and parents want Seattle high schools to start later. And when you start high schools later, it makes sense, Jatul said, to move elementary schools earlier, because younger kids wake earlier.

School district officials say one change in start time affects the whole system – because bus drivers typically drive multiple routes each morning and afternoon.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Sam Markert, project manager for the bell times analysis by the Seattle Public Schools.", "fid": "117485", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201505/sam_markert_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Sam Markert is heading up the Seattle Public Schools task force that’s considering the change.

He’s collecting opinions in an online survey, which will remain open through Sunday, May 10. “We don’t want to make assumptions. We want to have the data to back it up,” he said.

Markert said some parents are against the change. He said they tell him, “If you change the bell times, my child care becomes less secure. Or my work schedule, because I don’t have flexibility.”

Three options on the table

The online survey is collecting parent responses to three possible options:

  1. Keep the bell time schedule the same.
  2. Modify the schedules so elementary schools start at 8 a.m. or 8:50 am, high schools start at 8:50 a.m., and middle schools and K-8s start at 9:40 a.m.
  3. Allow high school students to start their six-period day at either 7:50 am or 8:40 am.  All other bell times are unchanged.

Some task force members, including Jatul and other advocates for later start times, have expressed concerns that the survey options are too limited and the questions' wording could prejudice participants against modifying the schedule.

Many task force members favor a "two-tiered option" that offers only two start times, rather than three, but costs more. That's not currently on the table.

Markert says the district put forward the most feasible options and stands behind the survey’s objectivity. He says the two-tiered option could resurface in the fall and his team is revisiting its cost estimate.

Before taking the survey, parents might want to view informational videos produced by the district that explore the pros and cons of switching bell times around.

The online survey ends Sunday, but there are still two public meetings this month where parents can learn more and voice their concerns:

  • 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 12 at Chief Sealth High School Commons (2600 S.W. Thistle St.)
  • 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 19 at Ballard High School Library (1418 N.W. 65th St.)

The task force will make its recommendation early this summer. The district will solicit community feedback one last time in meetings this fall before Superintendent Larry Nyland makes his final recommendation to the school board. The board is expected to make its decision in October or November.