Proposal To Push Back High School Start Times Raises School Districts' Ire

Nov 15, 2013

Leon County moved its high schools to an earlier time as part of its school bus route streamlining, saving the district about $2.7 million.
Credit Jessica Palombo / WFSU News

A debate over delaying the start of the school day for Florida’s high school students is headed for the state Legislature this session. A bill filed by Panhandle Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) would prohibit high schools from starting earlier than 8 a.m.

One of the first school buses of the day pulls up to Tallahassee’s Godby High School at 6:43 a.m. It’s still dark out at 7, after about a dozen buses have arrived. At most high schools in Florida, first period starts before 8. But Gaetz wants to push back the start of teens’ school days.

“I don’t know a single high school female that doesn’t take an hour and a half to get ready,” he says. “So that means you’ve got to be up at about 4:45 in the morning.”

His reasons go beyond vanity though.

“If you look at some of the highest-performing school districts in the state, I think it’s five out of the top six have already moved their start times. The United States military academies moved their start times—I mean, these are not exactly institutions that coddle their students, but they saw academic value,” he says.

In Gaetz’s Panhandle district, the Okaloosa County School district is perhaps a microcosm of the statewide debate to come. The school board there recently talked about delaying their 7 a.m. high school start time. But Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson does not support the change.

“The word from our constituents has been, ‘Don’t mess with our school times. We’ve adjusted to this. We have our work schedules around this, our daycare schedules around this,’” she says. “And we do well. Okaloosa County does well academically.”

Jackson says having limited money for buses means some students get the earliest shift, and she says she refuses to make elementary schoolers wait in the dark and cold.

In Leon County, schools spokesman Chris Petley says, saving money on bus fuel, drivers and maintenance led his district to move high schools to an earlier start of 7:30 a.m. a few years back.

Petley says, “That change saved us approximately $2.7 million in transportation costs because we were able to streamline our routes.”

Gaetz says he’s heard these arguments before.

“And what it so difficult for me to understand is how a school district would prioritize a bus ride over what happens to a kid when they get off the bus,” he says.

Gaetz says he has science on his side. He refers to studies suggesting teenage brains have a hard time going to sleep before about midnight and that sleep deprivation causes a host of mental and physical health problems. Those studies led U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan earlier this year to endorse later high school start times.

And Okaloosa County pediatrician Lynn Keefe says the science is what drives her crusade for the change on behalf of her teenage patients.

“They are exhausted,” she says. “People come in thinking they have mono or thyroid problems or attention deficit disorder or depression. And some of them do have depression. But most of them there is a component of sleep deprivation that is—I can’t cure. I can’t cure. I need my community schools to join me.”

Still, Okaloosa Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson insists Keefe is in the minority in the district. And she says it shouldn’t be up to a state lawmaker to decide anyway.

“As a Republican, that’s a huge problem for me: taking away our right to local control,” she says.

Jackson says she plans to call every school superintendent in the state to urge them to oppose the bill. But Gaetz says he’s confident about its chances—at least in its first committee, where he says Chairwoman Janet Adkins has been receptive to the idea.