School bus

An overwhelming percentage of Madison parents, students and staff members who responded to a district survey said pushing back start times at district middle schools would have a positive or neutral impact on their morning routines.

However, about one-fourth of staff members and 15 percent of parents said later start times would make mornings more challenging. Staff members most commonly cited transportation problems as the reason, while parents often cited conflicts with their work schedules.

The results are part of a year of fact-finding on the issue by the School Board, which is scheduled to discuss the issue again Monday.

Bus issues an obstacle

National research suggests later middle and high school start times can lead to a host of better outcomes, from higher attendance rates and fewer behavior problems to improved scores on state tests.

But transportation costs remain a big barrier. Changing all middle schools to later start times without also changing elementary and high school start times would require 50 to 55 additional bus routes, at an estimated increased cost of $2 million per year, said Karen Kepler, chief of school operations, in a memo to board members.

Currently, the district saves money by pairing a school with an early start time with one with a later start time. That enables the same bus and driver to do two routes per morning.

With more schools starting at or around the same time, the district would need to contract for more buses and more drivers.

Additionally, it may be difficult for the district’s bus carriers to add routes because of a national shortage of qualified bus drivers, Kepler said.

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Pilot project pitched

For these and other reasons, administrators are recommending that the district pilot a single-route bus model at just one middle school. They have not yet suggested when to start such a pilot.

A more detailed report on school start times, including a demographic breakdown of the survey findings, is expected from administrators later this month.

Nearly 10,000 people, including 5,558 students in grades 5 to 8, responded to the survey. Seventy-eight percent of parents, 71 percent of staff, and 75 percent of students believe a later middle school start would have a positive or neutral impact on their morning routines.

Board member TJ Mertz, who initiated the discussion about start times, said the positive survey responses did not surprise him. As for the price tag, “it’s large, there’s no question about that,” he said. “We’ll have to look at it within the mix of our priorities.”

Mertz said doing a pilot project “is not a bad idea.” But given that each school is unique, he said he’d like to see it done at two schools to get broader data. He said he “continues to be frustrated by how slow we’re moving forward on this.”

Currently, 10 of the district’s 12 middle schools start at 7:35 a.m. Wright Middle School starts at 8:13 a.m. and Badger Rock Middle School at 8:25. Both are charter schools.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later. Delaying start times better aligns school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty, according to the organization.

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