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JCPS unveils major overhaul to school start times

A chart with proposed new start times provided by JCPS.
JCPS
A chart with proposed new start times provided by JCPS.

Jefferson County Public Schools is proposing a major overhaul to start times across the district. JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said his plan will solve a “transportation crisis” and give many teens more sleep.

Pollio said he knows changing times is “difficult for families.”

“But this is what is right for students,” he said during a press conference Wednesday. “This will positively impact students.”

Pollio said JCPS is one of very few large school systems in the country that still has just two bell times: one for elementary schools at 9:05 a.m. and one for middle and high schools at 7:40 a.m.

But that system has become untenable amidst a bus driver shortage. According to Pollio, 20,000 kids have arrived late to school this year — some by as much as two hours.

“Doing nothing is not an option from our current state right now. We have a national crisis when it comes to school bus drivers,” he said.

Like most other districts, JCPS has struggled to recruit enough bus drivers. Limited staff means drivers have to make double or even triple runs to cover all 700 routes.

The proposal would create nine staggered bell times, ranging from 7:40 a.m. to 10:40 a.m., allowing the district to get by with 600 routes. Under the plan, most schools would see their arrival time moved by less than an hour, Pollio said. The major change is that it would bump many middle and high schools to a later 8:40 a.m. arrival, while some elementary schools would move up to a 7:40 a.m. arrival.

Pollio said the district hired a consultant to create the plan that prioritized getting students to school on time with the decreased number of routes. Another priority, Pollio said, was moving as many high-needs middle and high schools as possible to a later start time. Some teens are catching the bus as early as 6:15 a.m. under the current plan.

“Research is clear: This is not healthy for our students,” Pollio said. He pointed to research from the University of Washington that showed moving bell times later for middle and high schoolers in Seattle gave them more sleep and improved their attendance and grades.

A review of 38 studies in the Journal of School Health found later start times were associated with better grades and attendance, more sleep, as well as fewer motor vehicle crashes.

The district was not able to move all middle and high schools to a later time, so JCPS prioritized non-magnet schools and schools with the lowest scores on state standardized tests.

For elementary schools, Pollio said consultants tried to make sure there were a variety of start times in each cluster. A cluster is the group of elementary schools families can choose from based on their home address.

The district says the proposal will also reduce the average bus ride to 27 minutes, down from 29 minutes. Pollio said he doesn’t expect sports and extracurricular activities to be significantly impacted, but that the district may have to make changes to the Child Enrichment Program (CEP), which provides childcare before and after school.

For JCPS employees and families whose work schedules do not align with the new start and dismissal times, Pollio said they can transfer schools. The transfer period for students opens May 1.

The superintendent said he’s planning a public forum in the coming months. He’s hoping for the board to vote on the plan before Spring Break.

The changes would be in effect for the 2023-2024 school year.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.