Parents say more buses are needed to fix Charleston County school bell times

Parents of elementary school students oppose a proposal that would shift the start of elementary schools for North Charleston, West Ashley and Johns Island to 7:15 a.m.

Parents continue to oppose a proposal that would start the school day at elementary schools in North Charleston, West Ashley and Johns Island at 7:15 a.m.

A handful of parents raised concerns with the plan to the Charleston County School Board Monday, saying the proposal will require students to get up earlier than 6 a.m. to catch a school bus before sunrise. Several parents said earlier start times for elementary students will mean parents will have to pay for extra child care when their children are dismissed earlier.

West Ashley parent Bonnie Cleaveland, whose child attends Montessori Community School, told the board 87 percent of the 36 schools impacted by the proposed changes are Title I schools, which have a higher proportion of students from low-income families.

Cleaveland said parents who rely on older children to care for young siblings after school will no longer have that option because the proposal would also start and end high school later.

“This can be a hardship on lots of parents financially and emotionally and on lots of children as well,” Cleaveland said.

The Charleston County School District unveiled a proposal last month to move up the school day at Haut Gap, Northwoods, Morningside, West Ashley, Zucker and C.E. Williams middle schools after parents and teachers at those schools took issue with the schools’ late dismissal time. Those schools currently start between 9 a.m. and 9:15 a.m. and dismiss at 4:10 p.m. or later. A new plan would have those schools start at 8:30 a.m. and dismiss at 3:30 p.m.

Parents and teachers at the six schools have been pushing to have the school day begin earlier to avoid a late dismissal so students can have more time in the afternoon for homework and extracurricular activities.

But to make the change, the new plan calls for all high schools in West Ashley, North Charleston and Johns Island to begin at 8:30 a.m. and all elementary schools in those areas to start at 7:15 a.m. to accommodate school bus schedules. Most elementary schools in North Charleston already start at 7:30 a.m. but several elementary schools in West Ashley and Johns Island start between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.

West Ashley parent Stella Tuten said she wanted to “advocate for reasonable bell times for all students.”

“Middle-schoolers shouldn’t be starting late and elementary schoolers shouldn’t be starting too early,” Tuten said.

The solution, according to Tuten, lies in reallocating more school buses to serve North Charleston, West Ashley and Johns Island schools and redrawing bus routes, some of which she said are twice as long as routes in other areas of the school district.

Curtis Norman, director of transportation for Charleston County schools, said in an interview that the district is working with a transportation consultant to evaluate its allocation of buses for efficiency and equity.

Acting Superintendent Michael Bobby said district staff is compiling parent input from a survey and three forums regarding the bell times proposal. But the “first focus,” Bobby said, is to address the late start time at the six middle schools, which start later than most other middle schools in Charleston County.

“That is our primary focus as we go forward with that proposal,” Bobby said.

The school board is expected to vote on a bell time proposal for those areas at its meeting on May 11.

The board pulled a proposal Monday to change the district’s policy for handling student interrogations that would have required a school to attempt to have an employee with whom a student is familiar as a witness during any interrogations. The board decided to revisit the changes after several board members said they wanted stronger language to better protect students’ rights.