Split board votes on new start and end times for Muscogee County schools

All Columbus public schools will start and end their class days at different times next year after the board approved changes to the schedules Monday night.

The Muscogee County School District Board voted 6-2 to approve the administration’s proposal to adjust the times. Last month, the board tabled the vote to allow more time for feedback from the community.

Board vice chairwoman Laurie McRae of District 5 and Nickie Tillery of District 2 voted no.

The new schedule makes the following changes:

Elementary schools

  • Doors open: current 7:15 a.m., changes to 7 a.m.

  • Starting time: current 8 a.m., changes to 7:45 a.m.

  • Ending time: current 2:30 p.m., changes to 2:15 p.m.

Middle schools

  • Doors open: current 8:20 a.m., changes to 7:40 a.m,

  • Starting time: current 8:50 a.m., changes to 8:10 a.m.

  • Ending time: current 3:50 p.m., changes to 3:10 p.m.

High schools

  • Doors open: current 7:40 a.m., changes to 8:15 a.m.

  • Starting time: current 8:10 a.m., changes to 8:45 a.m.

  • Ending time: current 3:25 p.m., changes to 4 p.m.

Why MCSD is changing start and end times?

The changes are based on research that shows revised starting and ending times will better support academic performance and align with guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the administration’s presentation to the board in March.

The school day’s starting and ending times could affect students in their academic and athletic performance, their behavior and their transportation.

Circadian rhythms are part of the brain’s internal clock regulating bodily functions on an approximately 24-hour cycle. An average teenager’s circadian sleep-wake cycle provides the highest energy level from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the lowest energy levels from 3 to 7 a.m., according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics says high school days should start after 8:30 a.m.

Teenagers need eight to 10 hours of sleep per night, and their hormonal shifts cause them to stay awake late and want to sleep late, according to the CDC. If they don’t get the proper amount of sleep, the CDC says, they increase their chances of obesity, depression and risky behavior.

The Associated Press reported last week that at least nine states are considering legislation related to school start times.

Case study

The administration also presented results from a case study on a high school (name not disclosed) with similar demographics to MCSD, which had 29,512 students enrolled as of March 2, 2023, according to the Georgia Department of Education: 32,000 students, 5,100 employees, in a Southern urban community with Title I status.

Four years after that district changed its high school day’s starting time from 7:45 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. and its ending time from 2:45 p.m. to 4:15 p.m., the number of D’s and F’s in the first-period algebra class decreased by 11%. The study showed the passing rate on the state’s standardized test increased by 13%, and the passing rate on Advanced Placement exams increased by 2%.

Meanwhile, the number of tardies decreased by 19%, the number of absences decreased by 8%, and the number of discipline referrals decreased by 12%.

The later starting and ending times for high schools mean practices and games for sports teams will be later, and student athletes (35% of all MCSD high school students) will miss additional class time for away games.

But student athletes in middle school will have earlier starting and ending times for their practices and games, and high school student athletes will have more time in the morning for team practices or individual conditioning sessions.

The administration says a new schedule would benefit MCSD’s transportation system by:

  • Reducing the number of students with a morning pickup time at the school bus stop before 6 a.m. from 630 to zero.

  • Reducing the number of students arriving at school at least 15 minutes after the first bell rings from 1,890 to zero.

  • Reducing the number of students picked up from school at least 15 minutes after the dismissal bell rings from 1,750 to zero.

  • Reducing the number of students with an afternoon drop-off time at the school bus stop after 5:30 p.m. from 770 to zero.

  • Reducing the number of bus routes lasting longer than 75 minutes from 29 in the morning and 21 in the afternoon to zero.

Board members explain their votes

During the meeting Monday night, several board members expressed their opinion about the proposal before they voted.

“My issue again is not with the later start time; it’s just how late it’s going to be for the high school students,” McRae said. “The negative impact cannot be quantified when at least 80% of an overwhelming amount of comments I have received have been against this proposal.

“I wish we had been allowed more flexibility with options, a way to improve but not as drastic a change until we had done the (attendance rezoning) next year.”

Tillery said, “I do agree with Laurie that the stakeholders should have more input, the teachers, the bus drivers, the families that we currently have, to see how it’s going to impact them for next year because that could drastically change.

“I do think there needs to be a change, but I don’t think this is the change we need. I don’t think coming to a table and saying, ‘Do it my way or no way’ is a very good way to approach a problem. So, in my opinion, the lack of flexibility to work with everybody involved is the reason that I’m going to vote against it.”

District 4 representative Naomi Buckner said she received a mix of pro and con comments from constituents. So she based her decision on this: “I would vote for it every single time to keep kids from catching the bus 20 minutes before 6 o’clock and getting home late.”

District 6 representative Mark Cantrell said he initially was against the proposal because he thought it caused too much disruption for all students and parents. Then he noted the board voted last month to change MCSD’s policy — sparked by a request from one family — to allow students attending Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts to participate in extracurricular activities at their zoned school if they aren’t offered at Rainey-McCullers.

Now that the MCSD administration says its proposal to change the school start and end times would solve the bus transportation issues for more than 1,000 students, Cantrell said, the district has an opportunity to solve the most persistent problem MCSD has faced in the 12 years he has served on the board.

“Let’s fix the problem and give it a try,” he said. “Let’s make sure these students are at school on time, after school (at home) on time and not on the school bus all doggone day.”

Responding to Cantrell, Tillery said, “I agree with you 1,000%. I just wish that we would ask how this change is going to directly affect transportation for our current students. We can’t base the needs for next year on our current times because it’s going to mess up everybody’s schedule by changing the times.

“So, if we sent out a survey when we first started doing this, saying, ‘If we change the times, will you be riding a bus or riding in a car?’ Then we would have a snapshot of our actual students in school today, and then we could address it and see how to fix it for next year. … We’re comparing apples to oranges.”

Comments from constituents

After the March presentation to the board, MCSD conducted five public forums around the city to gather public opinion about the proposal.

“Thus far, feedback collected from parents, school leaders, teachers, and community members has been overwhelmingly positive and in support of the adjusted schedule,” the administration wrote on the agenda for Monday night’s meeting.

According to the summary of stakeholder feedback posted on MCSD’s website, 93% of the district’s principals support the proposal.

But there was organized opposition. An online petition endorsed by more than 100 signers urged board members to vote against the proposal “and continue to discuss the matter at hand with hopes of MCSD and its stakeholders finding common ground in regards to a solution to address the things data shows us are our major areas of needed improvement, which the current presentation does not fully convey,” the petition says.

Robynn Purnell, who was president of the Muscogee County Council of PTAs in 2018-19, posted the petition, which mentions several reasons to oppose the changes. They include:

  • “Not all stakeholders were made aware of the proposal in a timely manner with an adequate amount of time for discussions and feedback prior to the date of the voting.”

  • “The explanations and research backing the proposed changes, point way more to POTENTIAL positive changes only to the transportation issues within the school district and not so much the ‘The Whole Child.’”

  • “Why weren’t any parents or high school seniors invited to be a part of the subcommittee advisors?”

  • “The research shared with parents was from 2014 case studies and it only focused on high school students. Are we making decisions for all students based on outdated research for just one group?”

An MCSD teacher emailed the Ledger-Enquirer a critique of the administration’s rationale for changing the schedule. The teacher cited two pieces of academic research that contradict the benefits of later school start times: “When the bell tolls: The effects of School starting times on academic achievement,” by Peter Hinrichs and “Answering the Bell: High School Start Times and Student Academic Outcomes,” by Kevin C. Bastian and Sarah C. Fuller.

“Additionally,” the teacher wrote, “If you read the AAP policy statement the administration uses, you will find the studies they quote were not very equivalent to MCSD. One study was from the Air Force Academy. Several saw the high school start times move from 7:30 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. or even later. There is a big difference between a 20-minute later start time and a 75-minute later start time.”