Washougal school leaders nix possibility of later start times

Survey shows majority of community members prefer current schedule

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Students walk into Washougal High School before the start of classes on Feb. 4. A committee recommended against changing Washougal School District's start times at a Jan. 28 meeting. (Wayne Havrelly/Post-Record)

A committee studying possible changes to school start times in Washougal is unanimous in its recommendation: don’t change a thing.

The nine-member committee, made up of parents, teachers and other Washougal School District (WSD) staff members, formed in October 2019 to discuss the possibility of later start times designed to give teenagers more sleep. The move to later school start times is something that is already being done in neighboring school districts, including the Camas School District.

On Jan. 28, the committee’s leaders came to a Washougal school board meeting to recommend that Washougal School District (WSD) Superintendent Mary Templeton not alter the current schedule.

The committee reached that decision after collecting input, reviewing research and feedback from more than 1,300 survey responses and weighing the pros and cons of changing school start times.

“I feel the recommendation to keep the current start times aligns with the responses to our community survey,” said school board member Angela Hancock, who also represented the board on the committee. “The survey was intended to find out how this proposed change would impact the families in our community. The process was transparent, and the results spoke for themselves. I feel we truly listened to the feedback of our community, along with the multiple other factors that went into this decision.”

Current start times for Washougal schools vary. The earliest start time is 7:50 a.m. at Washougal High School. The latest is 9:10 a.m. at Columbia Gorge and Gause elementary schools.

Forty-one percent of survey respondents said they would prefer keeping the current start times; 25 percent supported a change to later start times; and 34 percent said that a change wouldn’t have an impact either way.

“You think, ‘Well, if we’re doing all of this for 25 percent, that’s hard to go on,'” said WSD Assistant Superintendent Aaron Hansen, who led the committee with Les Brown, the district’s information technology and communications director. “The survey results were so conclusive. By the end of the process, the committee was unanimous in its decision. The next step would have been to start scheduling some public forums, but we didn’t have the interest to get there.”

Respondents mentioned a variety of concerns about a change in start times, including the potential impacts to work schedules, athletics, after-school activities, child-care and Running Start and Cascadia Tech students. They also expressed a belief that students would stay awake even later than they currently are, and said that the district would be “reinforcing laziness” by not preparing students for real-world work schedules.

“The impact to the families (was a big concern) — what time parents are dropping children off, and if parents are able to drop them off,” Hansen said. “If they can’t, then the students are riding a bus, or the parents’ work schedule is impacted. We have kids that have consistent work schedules, so that was a concern. We talked at length about (the fact that) when you start later, your student-athletes have to get out of school (earlier), so they’re going to be missing more instruction. Then you have coaches who are teachers, and they’re leaving (earlier). It wasn’t one thing. It was a combination.”

Hancock said the feedback didn’t surprise her and added that her own daughters — a seventh-grader at Canyon Creek Elementary School and a freshman at WHS — said they were happy with the district’s current school start times.

“They are fine with the recommendation that has been made,” Hansen said of her children. “They are involved in a lot of after-school activities, especially the older they get. Both of my kids would rather get a jump on the day and felt that pushing the start times back an hour, for high school especially, would push their entire day back an hour, including bedtime. My oldest didn’t feel she would have gotten any more sleep because she would be up even later doing homework. They felt the entire family routine would have to change.”

Survey respondents indicated that positive effects from later start times would include more sleep, better grades and better attendance for students, and fewer weather-related late starts.

At the Jan. 28 meeting, Brown expressed appreciation to the parents, students and district employees who participated in the Washougal district’s survey.

“There were questions that people asked us to look at to (determine) if this is something we wanted to do here in Washougal,” Brown said. “We’re very appreciative of people surfacing these big ideas. We wanted to make sure the people who think that this has merit know that this isn’t something that the committee took lightly. The complications that come from making the change might lead to some consequences that might affect the entire system. But we want people to keep surfacing these really big ideas. It’s a way for us to achieve (our goal) of helping students.”

During a September 2019 board of directors meeting, Hansen and Brown talked about the possibility of later start times for the district’s secondary schools, referring to a 2018 study conducted by the University of Washington, which measured the success of students at two Seattle high schools based on sleep time.

“There is a fair amount of research around the social, emotional and physical health of students based on the amount of sleep they get,” Hansen said at the September meeting. “The research is showing that if you change the start time, students will attend more, and we believe if they attend more they’ll be more successful and academically do better. Socially and emotionally they’ll have more success and feel better about themselves and their progress. What we hope to accomplish is (to) examine ways that this change could positively impact our students.”

The committee members looked at recent start-time changes made by the Camas and Evergreen school districts, as well as the Seattle Public Schools District, which was the focus of the University of Washington study.

Hansen said Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell was “fantastic about providing information about what they went through” after that school district adjusted its start times in 2018.

“We had gotten informal feedback that our decision had been made, and (the district) is just moving forward. That was not it,” Hansen said. “(During the September meeting), we presented the research that supports the idea that later start times can be beneficial. We looked at the data that we thought would be impactful. But we weren’t trying to convince anybody. We were just saying, ‘We have an idea.'”

Student representative Maliyah Veale said Washougal High School students are in favor of keeping the current start times.

“I really like that (the committee) put together all of that information because a lot of kids at our school have actually been talking about this,” said Veale, a Washougal High senior. “I know a lot of students do stay up late, but they prefer having school at our current set times because they have time for their jobs, time for homework, time for after-school athletics. That was a big thing for them. They really appreciate that.”

While Hansen’s initial presentation focused mostly on the benefits of later start times for high school students, Hancock questioned what the changes would mean for younger children. In the proposed scenario, some of the district’s elementary schools would have started earlier than they do now.

“Gause Elementary starts an hour after Cape Horn-Skye Elementary, and I was able to see the difference in young children that started earlier in the morning,” said Hancock, who served as a longtime volunteer at Washougal’s elementary and middle schools. “With the proposed change, Cape Horn-Skye would have started later, leaving the elementary schools in town to start earlier. That would put many, many more young children in our buildings early in the morning if we would have flopped our schedules. Unfortunately, the research has not taken place for younger students regarding start times like it has for high school students. All in all, our district is within the average start time for high schools across the United States. Many of the high schools looking to start later are those that start around 7 to 7:30 a.m.”

Hansen said the school district could redirect its focus to educating students and families about sleep and its impact on well-being. In September 2019, Hansen told board members that 68 percent of Washougal High sophomores and 83 percent of seniors reported to the school’s most recent Healthy Youth Survey that they routinely get less than eight hours of sleep per night.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends teens get between eight to 10 hours of sleep each night and states less than that can result problems with behavior or attention spans.

“We want them to make healthy decisions,” Hansen said of the district’s students. “It’s a combination of talking to them and engaging them in the conversation and communicating with parents and the community that (more sleep) might make the best sense for them.”