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O'Keeffe middle schoolers

O'Keeffe Middle School Students laugh while forming a peace circle during a restorative justice program in March.

In large public bureaucracies with near-monopolistic control over crucial local services, fundamental change can take a long time to happen — if it happens at all.

But at least there’s reason to hope the Madison School District can affect some fundamental change in its school start times now that one of the School Board’s members is getting his long-requested discussion of the topic on Monday.

Researchers have for years known the dangers of sleep-deprivation for adolescents, as well as the difficulty they can have falling asleep at night. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

I’ve also written about later start times as one of a handful of cost-negligible, research-based changes that could help raise achievement among Madison’s students of color, who tend to graduate less often and score lower on standardized tests than their white peers.

Despite my musings — and those of people who know a lot more than I do — all 12 of the district’s middle schools and four of the five district high schools start before 8:30 a.m.

School Board member T.J. Mertz said he first asked for a review of middle school start times more than a year ago, because he’s seen the experience of his own middle-schooler, and because “the research is pretty clear” and “the middle schools are the worst offenders.”

“The buses are probably the biggest issue,” he said, referring to the need to make sure Metro Transit would have the buses needed to get kids to school at a later hour. But, he said, it “can’t be impossible.”

Metro spokesman Mick Rusch said the agency didn’t have an immediate reaction to later middle school start times, but would struggle to provide enough buses if middle and high school start times were too close together.

Doug Keillor, the head of the district’s once-powerful teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc., said the union “has not formally polled our members on their views on later start times, but I would expect that we have many members who are familiar with the research and would be supportive of such changes, depending on what was actually proposed.”

He also said he didn’t remember teachers having strong preferences on the start and finish times of their work days back before 2011’s Act 10 took effect and those things could be bargained over.

Like Mertz, Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said research is driving the district’s review of school start times. Officials decided late last summer to consider the topic this month because, she said, the board’s calendar was already “very full,” there wouldn’t have been time to implement later starts for the 2016-17 school year anyway and the district needed time “to explore the research, practice and options.”

Mertz was dubious of the need for nine or 10 months of study and said if later start times were a priority, “it would have been on the agenda sooner.”

“Sooner” isn’t really the school district’s habit, though, and it certainly is not within the DNA of adolescents who struggle to fall asleep and get up for school.

The difference is that habits can be broken.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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