La Cañada Unified community argues the merits and drawbacks of later high school start times

Could pushing La Cañada High School’s start time back 45 minutes help teens get more sleep and feel better about themselves and perform more efficiently in the classroom, while curtailing car accidents, recreational drug use and suicides?

Or is it a “Band-Aid” solution that would only further complicate after-school commitments and parents’ work schedules, force student athletes to miss more class time on game nights and fail to prepare students for the rigors and responsibilities of college?

In a special board workshop Monday, La Cañada Unified school officials attempted to ascertain the impacts of a possible late start before deciding whether to change LCHS’ standard start time for the 2017-18 school year from 7:45 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.

“We do want to hear everyone’s input,” La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board President Dan Jeffries said in opening remarks. “We wanted to know what the pros and cons were, because we want to weigh this issue.”

What followed was hours of passionate testimony on both sides of the issue from nearly 30 parents, teachers and students.

Board members decided to hold off on a course of action, opting instead to collect stakeholder survey data in advance of another special meeting scheduled for May 30, at which they’re expected to make a decision.

Monday’s workshop came as California school districts wait to hear news on the fate of Senate Bill-328, introduced in February by state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), which mandates middle and high schools statewide begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

The bill, which faces a hearing today by the state Senate Appropriations Committee, cites research that claims insufficient sleep exacerbated by too-early start times can lead to poorer academic performance, risky behaviors like smoking and drinking, and feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

Although Portantino hails from La Cañada, LCUSD Supt. Wendy Sinnette confirmed Monday SB-328 was not the main impetus for the district’s exploring a later bell schedule at the high school.

The district spent three years researching the issue after parent Belinda Dong broached the subject at a 2014 school board meeting. There, she presented officials with research and recommendations from the American Assn. of Pediatricians stating teen brains need from 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep each night.

This school year La Cañada High School began a campus-wide program developed by Stanford University called Challenge Success, which aims to promote actions and policies that increase students’ social and emotional wellness alongside academic excellence.

At the onset of the program, a survey was issued to students to gauge stress levels and well-being. On Monday, Sinnette shared some survey results, which indicate high-schoolers get an average of 6.5 hours of sleep per night. Among seniors, sleep times drop to 6.18 hours nightly.

Students in grades 9 through 12 reported having less than two hours of free time each weekday. Among those surveyed, 77% reported experiencing exhaustion, while 67% said they had difficulty sleeping and 64% reported suffering stress-related headaches.

“To me, that’s some of the most compelling data,” Sinnette said Monday.

Public commenters had views on both sides of the issue, both as a state mandate and a single-district decision.

Parent Rune Sodonis said later start times would only coddle students, as opposed to teaching them that hard work and doing better than the other guy is what breeds success in life.

Bill Stoner said an 8:30 a.m. start time unfairly prejudiced families with two working parents. Roberta McKean-Cowdin, USC epidemiologist and LCHS parent, said the research conducted so far doesn’t account for the many factors required for a mental benefit to occur.

Craig Miller, father of two high school students, said a better solution to insufficient sleep time is parents being more mindful of getting kids to bed at a decent hour.

“I really don’t think a half-hour or 45 minutes is going to make a difference to the kids,” said Miller, adding that kids will likely just stay up later than they do already. “The system’s not broken — why are we trying to fix it?”

A number of teachers and students and parents offered contrary viewpoints, providing anecdotal evidence of all-night study sessions and commitments, sleeping in their cars to save time and rampant tardiness in 6:42 a.m. zero periods.

Alternately, on late-start Tuesdays at La Cañada High, which begin at 8:40 a.m. after a teacher collaboration period, both students and teachers reported sleeping better, feeling more alert and joyful and interacting more positively with family members and each other.

“Tuesdays are magic,” said LCHS English teacher Tracey Calhoun. “Tuesdays are when great conversations happen, when some of the best writing assignments get handed in. [A late start] can only pay dividends for the community.”

LCHS senior Emin Baghdassarians questioned whether the system was broken, and whether La Cañada High School maintaining its superstar academic status was worth the risk incurred by its sleep-deprived students.

“You have an entire school of kids that are stressed beyond their minds,” he said. “Sure we have straight As, but on the weekend we feel illegal substances are the only way we can have some relief in our lives. Who cares about being No. 1 when the students don’t feel like No. 1?”

After public comments, board members expressed general support for pushing the LCHS start time back to 8:30 a.m., but said they wanted to gather more input on parental and student support by giving an online survey more time. A special meeting was called for May 30.

FYI: The survey for parents is available online at https://goo.gl/ECJ6z4. The May 30 special meeting takes place at 5:30 p.m., in LCUSD’s Governing Board room, 4490 Cornishon Ave., La Cañada. For more information, call (818) 952-8300.

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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