Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Transportation staff have released a report outlining a plan for implementing reasonable bell schedules with no added cost. The latest solution would require 1,128 buses, fewer than the current 1,144 being used in the 2008-09 school year.
“This is one bright spot in a bleak budget situation. We can finally provide healthy start times for all of our students while having more efficient, cost-effective bus service,” commented Sandy Evans, co-founder of SLEEP (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal). “Clearly, 2009 is the year to act.”
Staff followed the bell time recommendations of the FCPS Transportation Task Force that completed its work last March. These recommendations have been endorsed by the Fairfax County Council of PTAs (FCCPTA) as well as SLEEP. A summer survey of more than 6,000 parents conducted by FCCPTA showed that 85% preferred the proposed schedule to the current one.
The latest draft succeeded in placing all elementary schools between 7:50 am and 9:25 am, the same basic timeframe as now but with more on the earlier end in keeping in young-child biology. Most high schools were set to start at 8:30 am and end at 3:20 pm. Most middle schools would start at 9:40 am and end at 4:30 pm. A range of start times is needed to enable buses to do several runs each morning and afternoon for efficiency.
This is the third draft of a new bell schedule. It not only achieves reasonable bell schedules for all students in FCPS, it also fixes an estimated $20 million worth of transportation service deficiencies. In March 2007, Transportation staff reported that it would cost $20 million a year to reach what staff termed “an acceptable level of service” with the current bell schedule, such as reducing excessive ride times, more on-time deliveries, fewer crowded buses and no pickups before 6:15 a.m.
“It’s very exciting that staff have developed a plan that uses fewer buses than we do with the current, unhealthy schedule,” said SLEEP Co-Founder Phyllis Payne. “While there are still some improvements that can be made, this gives us a solid framework for moving forward.”
The latest version of the proposed bell schedule substantiates what independent consultants concluded two years ago when they found that a no-cost bell schedule fix was possible with similar start times.
SLEEP would like to see some further improvements. These include developing a different, more cost-effective way to transport students to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST). The third draft continues to use 64 buses to transport that school, even as the latest FCPS budget documents indicate that significant cuts in TJ transportation are being contemplated in the coming fiscal year. A different approach could save money and transport students more effectively.
At a Monday Jan. 12 work session, the School Board will discuss the new bell schedule draft along with plans to introduce it to the community.
Payne and Evans emphasized that the bottom line on the new schedule is health and improved learning for students. It would have the added benefit of improving transportation and reducing the time that middle school students are home alone in the afternoons, when risky behaviors tend to occur.
Later start times result in more sleep for adolescent students. Extra sleep improves performance in the classroom, on the sports field, and when driving a car. The 3:20 pm end time also would enable many sports teams to have practices at around the same time they do now.
Young children tend to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier. Shifting more elementary schools to the earlier timeframe may eliminate the need for morning daycare allowing children to transition straight from home to school in the mornings and provides an opportunity for more young children to have time to play outside after school.
To see the full staff report, click here.
For more information about the later start time issue, visit SLEEP at www.sleepinfairfax.org. More than 8,500 people have signed SLEEP’s online petition calling on the School Board and Superintendent to make the change.
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