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Rochester students could get a little more sleep, thanks to bus sharing

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A Rochester Public Transit bus on 37th Street Northwest in Rochester on Friday, April 7, 2017.
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Within the next few years, Rochester middle and high school students might be able to squeeze in a few more morning zzz's, thanks to a potential shift in start times.

Students could get an extra hour of sleep in the morning, as soon as the 2019-20 school year because of a potential partnership between Rochester Public Schools and the city. A bus-sharing proposal would allow middle and high school students to take city buses to school, decreasing costs for RPS and boosting ridership for Rochester Public Transportation.

It's a decision that would push back start times to between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. — just past RPT's peak ridership times.

The city and RPS partnered on a recently completed study to work through many of the details of the proposal, but now they think they'll need to go a little more in-depth to nail down start times, where the routes will go and the cost. The phase two study also will help them determine if it's the best move for both parties.

"Both groups would have to decide if this is a partnership we'd want to enter in," said superintendent Michael Muñoz at last week's school board meeting.

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That second phase, combined with the first, will cost RPS nearly $50,000. But it's a move that potentially could save the district money in the long run, Muñoz said.

RPT likely will take the request for a second phase to the city council in November, said Bryan Law, RPT Transit Planner.

"We didn't have enough information to make a decision one way or another on whether this was an arrangement to pursue," Law said. "We want to get down into the details of what it's going to cost and how are we going to implement this if we go through with it."

Later start times are better for students

School board members and parents have backed pushing start times back for some time, largely because medical advice and best practices suggest later start times are beneficial for adolescents.

School board chairwoman Julie Workman said she hoped the start times could be adjusted, pointing to the "abundance of research to back up the benefits of starting later."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes start times before 8:30 a.m. as a "key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep" and "urges" high schools and middle schools to set start times that allow those students to get 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep each night.

Currently, all of the middle and high schools begin at 7:40 a.m. each morning , while the elementary schools have a 9:15 a.m. start. The average start time for students attending public high schools nationwide is 7:59 a.m., according to the National Center for Education Statistics .

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It's been an issue across the county. Earlier this month, St. Paul Public Schools voted to do the same , pushing start times back to 8:30 a.m., beginning in fall 2019.

What about all the school buses?

It's unclear how many students would take the city bus, but elementary students still likely would be taking the traditional yellow school bus to class each day.

Currently, there are 6,127 students in grades six through 12 assigned to a bus route, said Heather Nessler, the district's director of communications. But that doesn't mean all those students are riding the bus, Nessler said; many choose to transport themselves.

In the past, the district has put out requests for a "one-tiered" busing schedule, or one that would allow all the district's students to run on the same schedule, but the bus companies don't have enough buses, or drivers, to accommodate that, Muñoz said.

"It'd be a challenge for anybody to accommodate the number of kids that we transport everyday," Muñoz said.

RPS' current transportation contract with First Student is set to expire at the end of June 2019, which is part of the reason the district now is considering this option, Muñoz said when the study began in October 2016 .

Jon Goetz, location manager with First Student, said he couldn't comment because he doesn't know the details of the plan but wouldn't anticipate a drop in "many, if any, routes" because of the rural students they service.

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When the second phase of the study is completed, the district hopes to hold public meetings to answer any questions parents or those in the community might have. But the district and school board members think it's something that largely would be positive for students.

Another benefit, Muñoz said, is the district likely would push to allow student access to bus routes on the weekends. And it's a way for students to get to acclimated to public transportation.

"They want to teach and get our young students used to riding buses," he said. "As you become an adult and as we continue to grow larger, we need more adults riding the bus downtown than driving all the time."

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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