On Tuesday, the Rochester School Board once again faced a decision about changing school start times so that high school students can get more sleep and be ready for their first class of the day.
And once again, the board postponed that decision pending more input from parents, teachers and students.
This delay was as predictable as it was frustrating.
Granted, this is a complicated issue that has the potential to affect thousands of families. The school day in a district this size is a highly choreographed dance of bus routes, class periods, lunch hours and after-school activities. You can't change one element of the routine without impacting the others – and that impact can be both clumsy and expensive, at least initially.
But we fear that some district administrators and members of the school board have become prisoners to perfection. They're holding out for a plan that will please everyone, and it's safe to say that no such plan exists – especially when elementary school start times might have to be adjusted as well.
Meanwhile, the years keep slipping by with no action taken. It's been more than three decades since researchers began unlocking some key truths about adolescent brain development, including the fact that teens are essentially hard-wired to be awake until at least 10:45 p.m. and aren't ready to learn until 8 a.m.
That's not merely a hypothesis. It's science, and it's true of teens around the world.
The Edina and Minneapolis school districts acted quickly in response to this science, adjusting their school start times in the mid-1990s, and the change was a huge success.
Rochester did nothing.
In 2014, researchers from the University of Minnesota's Center for Aplied Research and Education Improvement studied 9,000 high school students from three states and found that those who started classes at 8:35 or later had lower rates of depression and substance abuse. They got higher grades in math, English and social studies, and later start times were even associated with dramatic decreases in car accidents.
Six years after that study, Rochester is still spinning its wheels, still searching for the perfect plan.
We're not saying that one of the proposals that came before the board on Tuesday should have been adopted as-is. We don't want students to lose the equivalent of 45 hours of instructional time in a school year, and we agree with board member Jean Marvin's statement that the staggered lunch/class schedule in one of the proposals looks "absolutely miserable."
Furthermore, we also recognize that high school students already submitted their schedule requests for next year, so it's rather late in the game to be considering changes that would reduce the number of class periods in the school day for 2020-21.
We do, however, object to the board's apparent willingness to wash its collective hands of this matter for a few months. It's nice to say things like "We want more public input," but that also can come across as a convenient way of putting off an unpleasant task.
If the proposals presented Tuesday were unsatisfactory, then there's no time to waste. New ideas won't magically appear on the drawing board, and we'd argue that developing a viable plan for changing school start times should be the board's No. 1 priority between now and September.
So, if the board needs a new citizens working group to develop new plans, then the board should form that group immediately. If more public input is needed, then the district should send out the surveys ASAP. Every school board meeting should include updates and discussion of the developing plans, and by the time classes begin in September, the board should be ready to move forward. That would allow almost a full year for the plan to be implemented and the bugs to be worked out.
If, however, this issue is set aside for any length of time, then it's entirely possible – if not probable – that one year from now we will be in exactly the same place we are now, and the board will once again kick the can down the road.
Rochester's students deserve better. They need at least eight hours of sleep, and they can't get it if they're on the school bus at 6:45 a.m.