School bell times on school district’s agenda

Students make their way to buses after getting out of school at Zucker Middle in North Charleston last school year. Zucker, along with five other middle schools, has one of the latest dismissals of Charleston County schools, but the school district is planning to change that.

Parents concerned about a proposed bell schedule change for some Charleston County schools will have a chance to air their concerns at a forum Tuesday.

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. 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, which they say delays everything from extracurricular activities to time for homework.

But to make the change, the new plan starts elementary schools in West Ashley, North Charleston and Johns Island at 7:15 a.m. to accommodate school bus schedules.

School Board member Michael Miller said board members have been flooded with “hundreds and hundreds” of emails from elementary school parents upset over the proposed change. Numerous parents also took issue with the plan at a school board meeting last week.

The goal of the forum, Miller said, is to let parents explain their concerns.

“We wanted to have one more chance for people to be heard,” said Acting Superintendent Michael Bobby.

And the message from West Ashley parents is clear.

“It’s absolutely too early,” said parent Ainsley Tillman, whose two children attend St. Andrew’s School of Math and Science.

Tillman said such an early day means that younger children have to go to bed earlier and sacrifice family time. And for working parents it means having to keep their children in child care an hour longer after school, she said.

As the mother of a child who will attend West Ashley Middle in the fall, Tillman is sympathetic to the issue of the late dismissal for middle schoolers. But adjusting the schedule, she said, shouldn’t be “at the expense of elementary students.”

Sonia McCutcheon, the PTA president of Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary School in West Ashley, said “the fly in the ointment” is an inefficient school bus system. She thinks the district needs more centralized bus stops, particularly for students who don’t go to neighborhood schools.

“The school bells should not be dictated by the bus system,” she said. “The school bell system should be dictated by what’s best for the children.”

Miller, who supports starting the six middle schools earlier, stressed that the plan is just a proposal and that changes can be made before the board votes on a final version.

“I don’t think everybody will be happy, but we want to make sure we can satisfy as many parents as we can,” he said.

The forum will be held from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary School, 1871 Wallace School Road in West Ashley.