These teens need CMS to wake up

The Observer editorial board

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders are perpetually searching for ways to improve students’ performance. That’s an ongoing challenge, especially in an urban district, so CMS has long been open to innovative trends and progressive initiatives – even if they’re costly.

Yet CMS and its Board of Education are on the verge of rejecting a proposal, recommended by experts and backed by studies, that would help the district’s 42,000 high schoolers in a very old-school way – by getting them more sleep.

That proposal, backed by a CMS task force last year, would have pushed back the 7:15 a.m. start times for high schools to an unspecified time. It’s a common sense move that other districts, both large and small, have made across the country.

Why not CMS? Blame the county and state, CMS officials say. Without more money for education, the district can’t afford to spend the millions it saved when it changed the bell schedule for 2011-12. That’s a curious reason – and bit of blame-shifting – given the district’s admirable willingness in good times and bad to make investments that might help students do better in the classroom.

An example: CMS has spent millions in recent years outfitting classrooms and students with tablet computers and laptops, including Chromebooks for all middle school students. This despite evidence and experts being mixed on the effectiveness of technology in the classroom, especially when there’s not an apparent specific system-wide plan for classroom tech. (CMS students and teachers report varying degrees of laptop use.)

CMS, however, has been understandably willing to take that monetary risk on technology, because students need every advantage they can reasonably get. The same should be true with a high school bell change, which is hardly a risk at all. Studies show that pushing back the start of the school day has a positive impact on academic performance. It also has decreased the number of car crashes involving adolescents. It might even decrease sports-related injuries, research shows.

Why? Early high school start times interfere with the circadian rhythms of adolescent students, resulting in them not getting the rest they need to succeed. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in a detailed statement last year that secondary schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

It’s also why even large districts have been moving toward the change, despite the cost and complications of changing the choreography of bus transportation. That includes the Fairfax County (Va.) school district, which has 57,000 high school students and spent $4.9 million to make the change for fall 2015. It’s unclear how much CMS would spend to do the same.

Said Fairfax’s superintendent: “The growing body of research on the health benefits for adolescents has become so clear and compelling, we felt that we had to make a change.”

CMS officials should revisit the high school proposal, and they can consider offsetting some transportation costs with moves such as increasing mandatory walk zones, which have been comparatively small here. It’s not a sexy initiative like technology, but it’s one that stands at least as good a chance of accomplishing what district leaders have long advocated – giving students their best chance to succeed.