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On a crisp spring morning a few weeks ago, teenagers traipsed through the parking lots at South Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, backpacks slung over their shoulders. Some had their gaze fixed on their iPhones. Others were laughing with friends.

Most of them looked sleepy.

No schedule will be perfect for all families. 

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other school districts have long struggled with school start and dismissal times. There are endless variables — start too early and kids are tired, end too late and school interferes with activities such as church services. A late afternoon dismissal time means children could be on the school bus after dark in the winter. No schedule will be perfect for all families. 

CMS added a layer of complexity to scheduling in 2011, when the school board directed then-Superintendent Peter Gorman to cut $4 million from the district’s transportation budget to save 80 teaching positions that were at risk due to state and county budget cuts. 

The board’s decision led to the reduction of 120 school buses and 120 bus driver positions (through attrition and without layoffs), causing the remaining drivers to increase the number of daily runs for which they are responsible. The logistical challenge of fewer buses and drivers serving the same number of schools meant changing the bell schedule.

CMS created a new 9:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. school schedule on 35 campuses: 17 elementary schools, 15 middle schools, one high school and two specialty schools.

Some parents and teachers bristled at the new schedule, saying the extended day hurt staff morale and was a burden to kids and families. The parents’ frustration led to the creation of a School Time Task Force in 2013 under the direction of then-Superintendent Heath Morrison. 

The task force made three recommendations to the district:

  • Reduce the elementary school day, preferably by 30-45 minutes
  • Eliminate the 4:15 dismissal bell tier schedule for elementary and middle schools
  • Consider and study a later start time for high schools

And it appears unlikely, according to comments by school board members, that CMS will explore the task force’s other recommendations, including the change to high school start times.

Last week, CMS Superintendent Ann Clark said she would not recommend shortening the elementary school day. And it appears unlikely, according to comments by school board members, that CMS will explore the task force’s other recommendations, including the change to high school start times.

Last week, The Charlotte Observer’s editorial board encouraged the district to take another look at the bell schedule proposals, saying a later start time for high schoolers is worth the cost because it would improve academic performance. Last August, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement that recommended delaying high school start times to after 8:30 a.m. as a matter of health.

“Doing so will align 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,” the policy statement read. A pediatrician who wrote the document called chronic sleep loss in children and teenagers “one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today.”

The Observer’s editorial noted, though, that the cost to make a change like this is substantial. Fairfax County, Va., for example, spent nearly $5 million to shift high school start times.

One possible solution for CMS, at least as a first step, is to adjust the bell schedule at magnet schools. Because magnet assignments are done by lottery, parents could opt-in to a particular bell schedule. The district is currently reviewing its magnet school options, and a discussion about the start times could be embedded in that evaluation.

The unintended consequences are part of the challenge with the bell schedule debate.

The unintended consequences are part of the challenge with the bell schedule debate. Moving one variable changes another. Dismissing one school at a different time means transportation shifts. How much will a bell schedule change cost? If high schools start at 8:30 a.m. and dismiss at 3:30, what does that mean for extracurricular activities? What about professional development for teachers? 

Those are nuanced issues, but they’re part of the conversation. And they’re part of the reason CMS is still wrestling with the bell schedule nearly four years later. The solution won’t be easy. And it definitely won’t be free.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.