Later school start: complications with a silver lining?

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Baseball game

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Some worry that later start times will make it harder for high school students to work, play sports and participate in extracurricular activities. In this photo from March, the Tilden Career Community Academy High School baseball team plays a game.

High school senior Carol Pazos commutes 40 minutes on the Orange and Red lines from her home in Gage Park to Jones College Prep on the Near South Side. Once there, she makes the most of her time: She’s the student representative on the Local School Council, serves on student government and homecoming committees, is a member of both the National and Spanish honor societies and plays tennis.

But now that her school day has shifted an hour later, Pazos decided something had to go. She chose tennis.

“There’s no way I can stay after school for two hours and then come home and still do my homework,” Pazos said.

Pazos is one of thousands of students at 56 CPS high schools who will face a later morning bell this upcoming school year — 48 of those have been pushed back an hour or more. In all, the district is changing the start and end times at a total of 61 high schools and 21 elementary schools.

Citing data from the Council of Great City Schools, CPS officials said Chicago is one of a handful of major districts in the country that has not staggered its school start times. As a result, they said, transportation costs are higher.

CPS expects to save $13.5 million with the change by streamlining transportation, but some community members are concerned that for high schools, almost all of which will start later, the change will lower participation in after-school activities and jeopardize student safety on long commutes home in the dark.

Ray Burns, a 17-year-old senior at Foreman College and Career Academy in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, is particularly concerned about safety.

“When it gets dark in my neighborhood, it gets sketchy,” he said. “There are gangs and stuff. I’m not about to go home in the pitch black.” He added that he also worries about being able to keep his after-school job at The Purple Pig restaurant on the Near North Side.

When Zach Alukos, a special education teacher at Mather High School on the North Side, heard that classes will shift one hour later, his first thought was of the soccer players he coaches.

“Our students from the South and West sides take two or three buses,” he said, adding that sunlight for games in late fall will now be an issue.

Though challenging, the high school shift may actually improve student performance and well-being. In a 2014 statistically significant study of over 9,000 students across three states, University of Minnesota Senior Research Fellow Kyla Wahlstrom found that later high school start times improved school attendance, standardized test scores and academic performance. Later times also lowered instances of substance abuse and depression.

Wahlstrom said the improvements can be attributed to the biology of the teenage brain: Once teens hit puberty, they become tired around 11 p.m.

“The unknown is very hard for people to accept. There’s a rhythm and a balance of their lives, and this upsets it,” said Wahlstrom.

She added that even when coaches in previous studies cut practice time to accommodate a later school start, the young athletes performed better anyway. They remembered the plays better, she said.

Alan Mather, the principal at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, echoed these sentiments when he heard his school day would shift an hour later: “We’ve heard from students that they’ll be happy that they can sleep in.”

Barbara Youngberg, a parent at Lincoln Park High School, isn’t convinced the change will get students to sleep more.

“The feeling is that they will need to stay up later the night before,” Youngberg said. “If you could see how booked some of these kids are, it really leaves them with no time, and now you’re taking some of that precious time away.”

A full list of the affected high schools, along with the elementary schools, many of which have earlier times, can be seen here.

  • Concerned Parent

    It’s a RED lining for students as researchers forgot to include Chicago’s gun violence. When our high school students legitimately fear getting home and are caught in the nightly cross-fire. There is more to this than saving money – Oh to be a fly on the wall when this was discussed and approved by Rahm.