Charleston County high-poverty middle schools fighting against late start, dismissal times

Students make their way to buses after getting out of school Tuesday at Zucker Middle in North Charleston. The school has one of the latest dismissals of Charleston County schools and some want to change it. Buy this photo

The first school bell of the day rings later at six of Charleston County's high-poverty middle schools, and that's causing a host of problems for some teachers, students and parents.

The school day at Haut Gap, Northwoods, Morningside, St. Andrews, West Ashley and Zucker middle schools doesn't begin until 9 a.m. or 9:15 a.m., which is more than 45 minutes later than some Mount Pleasant middle schools and more than a half-hour later than some James Island middle schools.

The middle schools' supporters say they don't like the late start times because it means later dismissal times. They say that triggers issues such as: teachers are less likely to want to work at or stay in those schools; employees can't take care of daytime appointments without needing a substitute; meetings and after-school activities are limited or pushed into the evening hours; and older students can't take care of their younger siblings who are released earlier.

"Why are only Title 1 (low-income) children in this situation?" said Harriet Ripinski, a volunteer and member of the School Improvement Council at Haut Gap Middle.

Middle schools on James Island and in Mount Pleasant start no later than 8:35 a.m. Mike Bobby, the district's chief of finance and operations, said he's not sure how these middle schools ended up with the later start time, but the intention has not been to single out the high-poverty schools. The schedules have been this way for some time, he said.

Their later start and ending times are dictated by school bus schedules, he said, and the district lacks sufficient buses to transport all students during the same time frames.

District officials told the county school board this month that the cheapest remedy to the situation would cost about $4 million, but the county school board directed them to find a better solution.

Bobby said they plan to do a logistics study on the transportation system to see what kind of changes can be made, but he doesn't anticipate that work being finished in time to make changes for the 2014-15 school year.

"The reality is if we want to do what's best for all children, we ought to figure out a way to be consistent," he said.

School start times after 9 a.m. aren't the norm in the Lowcountry. The latest school start time in Berkeley County schools is Hanahan High, which starts at 8:40 a.m., and the latest start times in Dorchester 2 are its middle schools, which begin at 8:30 a.m. Most schools start between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m.

School start times are a hot-button issue for parents and teachers, and efforts in past years to push back schools' start times have been met with fierce resistance. Although research shows adolescents have later sleeping and waking patterns than younger students, and that later start times can improve their attendance, academic performance and grades, some say the drawbacks to a late start are numerous, significant and outweigh the positives.

"Having our kids starting at 9 a.m. was devastating," said Paul Padron, an associate superintendent who oversees middle schools and was the former principal of Haut Gap Middle. "You're working with your hands tied behind your back."

Shorace Guider teaches at Zucker Middle School in North Charleston, and the last bell doesn't ring until 4:10 p.m. She asked the school board to consider an earlier start time, and she said it would positively affect teacher retention and student achievement.

It's difficult for teachers to make districtwide meetings or trainings because they can't leave school until 4:30 or 5 p.m., she said. And students who need after-school tutoring can't stay because their parents need them at home to watch their younger siblings, she said.

If the district can't afford to add the buses necessary to give those middle schools an earlier start, she asked whether it would be possible for other county middle schools to have a later start and these take their buses. Bobby said the district doesn't have enough buses to do that.

Rosemarie Porter, a teacher at Northwoods Middle, told the board that opportunities aren't equal throughout the district, and Title 1 schools with later start times have fewer clubs and after-school activities than those with an earlier release.

"They deserve the same access as students in other schools," she said

Ean Tucker, a Haut Gap Middle student, spoke to the school board on behalf of the student body and said students also would like earlier start times. Like his teachers, Ean said he can't make dental and doctors' appointments after school, so he has to miss classes each month.

"Daily disruption is spiraling out of control," he said.

Three other middle schools - C.E. Williams Middle, Daniel Jenkins Creative Learning Center and Lincoln High - also have later start times, and officials anticipate those schools would want a schedule change if one is granted for the high-poverty middle schools.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.

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