Prompted by a petition from parents and a work group he appointed, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr is proposing shifting high school start times 50 minutes later — from 7:25 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. And to address overcrowding in the fast-growing district, he is seeking funds in his proposed capital improvement budget to build new schools and add classrooms to existing ones. Joshua Starr joins Kojo in studio.


  • Joshua Starr Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools (Md.)


  • 12:06:55

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat was scary. From WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.

  • 12:07:14

    MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, refiguring D.C. school boundaries, raising race and class issues. But first, it's a familiar debate. Should high schools start later so kids can sleep longer? Proponents say drowsy students don't perform well in class and that sleep deprivation among adolescents is a public health problem. Opponents say having kids home longer in the morning is hard for working parents and that when the school day ends later, it's tough for teens to fit in after-school activities like sports and jobs. The question is up for debate in Montgomery County after the superintendant recommended moving high school start times 50 minute later, from 7:25 to 8:15.

  • 12:07:55

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe plan would also start middle schools 10 minutes earlier and make the elementary school day 30 minutes longer. At the same time, Superintendant Joshua Starr is tackling overcrowding at public schools and the fast-growing district. He's proposing a new five-year capital improvement budget that would fund construction of new schools and new classrooms at existing schools, but would delay some construction projects in the existing improvement plan. Joshua Starr joins us in studio. He is superintendant of Montgomery County public schools. Good to see you again.

  • 12:08:30

    DR. JOSHUA STARRGood to see you, Kojo. And thanks so much for having me on today.

  • 12:08:33

    NNAMDIYou're welcome. You, too, can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Would you like to see Montgomery County High Schools start at 8:15 instead of 7:25 a.m.? 800-433-8850. You can send emails at Your recommendation to start county high schools later grew out of a public appeal and a report from a working group that you appointed to explore the benefits and challenges of a later morning bell. Why are you in favor of the changes?

  • 12:09:06

    STARRFirst, let me just say Happy Halloween everybody and, folks, please be careful on the roads this afternoon, this evening. Lots of little kids out there walking around, so please be extra careful on the roads. Yeah, so look, this is an issue that people are thinking a lot about around the country and certainly in the region. If we can do anything to support our kids' well-being, we will. And, you know, sleep has something to do with that.

  • 12:09:32

    STARRSo we put together a great work group of internal folks and external folks to take a look at changing high school bell times. They came up with some options. And I've taken one of those options -- made one of those options a recommendation. And we put it out there to the community. And we're getting a lot of community input to see what the impact is, what the feasibility is, what the practicality is, so that we can then potentially make a change in 2015.

  • 12:10:00

    NNAMDIThe research on whether later start times affect student performance in their first and second period classes is not conclusive. What do you think the academic benefit of later start times might be?

  • 12:10:10

    STARRYeah, so this is not a panacea for academic achievement as measured by standardized test scores or anything like that. This is about the kind of state in which our kids come into school. And we want our kids to feel well rested. We want them to feel energetic. We want them to feel like they're ready to take on all the challenges of the classroom, the athletic field, you know, the clubs, whatever it may be. We want them to be safer on the roads, certainly. And there's clearly a link there. Will it mean that more kids, you know, kids concentrate better in class and do better on their grades, the evidence is inconclusive. But it's still a good thing to promote the well-being of our kids.

  • 12:10:50

    NNAMDIA lot of parents think it's a no-brainer to let high school students sleep a little later in the morning. But in families with two working parents, later start times could affect both the workday and after-school care for younger siblings. How will you weigh those concerns?

  • 12:11:05

    STARRWell, that's right. And we have to remember that some of our kids are working a job after school so they can send money to their home country or to help support their family here. Some of our kids are working after-school jobs -- are taking care of their younger brothers and sisters, as you described. And people arrange their lives according to their kids' schedules. This is why we're doing so much community engagement work over the next six months or so. We had a great public forum the other night at Paint Branch High School, and the intent is to get as much input from as many different folks in as many different situations as possible, so we can then figure out how disruptive it would be to our community.

  • 12:11:44

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Joshua Starr. He is superintendant of Montgomery County Public Schools, in case you're just joining us. The number to call, if you would like to join the conversation itself, is 800-433-8850. How would later school start times in Montgomery County affect your family? You can also send us a tweet at kojoshow or go to our website, and ask a question or make a comment there. Talk about the cost of a shift in start times. The work group estimated it would cost about $11 million more to run the school buses under the new schedule. Is there a dollar amount that would be a potential deal breaker?

  • 12:12:19

    STARRSo that $11 million is a very preliminary figure. It's actually about $12 million. It's very preliminary. It will, of course, compete -- whatever the cost is, it will compete with other demands that we have in our county. We're a growing system. We are a system with a lot of needs. Our kids have a lot of needs. Our diversity is our greatest strength, but it also creates a lot of challenges in the classroom. And our dollars have been pretty flat over the last few years. So, when it comes to the budgetary decision that I and the board will have to make, it really is going to be a matter of balancing priorities.

  • 12:12:55

    NNAMDIThe catalyst here is the high schools, but to make the schedule change work, you'd start middle schools 10 minutes earlier and make the elementary school day half an hour longer. What would the impact be on the younger students?

  • 12:13:09

    STARRSo the elementary day is not -- it's not tied into the ability to make the high schools later. The middle school earlier start time is tied into making the high schools later. The elementary came up because we realized when we were looking at the whole kit and caboodle that we said, you know what? We have the second shortest elementary day in the state. We could do so many wonderful things during that time, whether it's more enrichment, whether it's more support and interventions, whether it's more planning time for teachers, there's so many things we could do with that time.

  • 12:13:38

    STARRSo why don't we take a holistic look? But the later start times for elementary are not -- or I should say that they're not explicitly tied into the later start times for high schools. It's simply a matter of being able to, if we're going to change schedules, it's better to do all of it at once.

  • 12:13:57

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Fran in Potomac, Maryland. Fran, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:01

    FRANHi, Kojo. I just want to tell you, we are exhausted in Montgomery County. I've raised three children in the elementary school, middle school, and now I have two more in high school. We have to wake up at 6:00 a.m. to stand at a dark bus stop at 6:30 a.m. It is horrific. We are like zombies. We need help. We need later start times.

  • 12:14:30

    NNAMDII think the superintendant, at this point, agrees with you, Fran.

  • 12:14:33

    STARRYeah. Look, you know, we hear this, and I appreciate that, Fran. I know how much our parents do to support their kids.

  • 12:14:41

    NNAMDINow, you're a parent and a former teacher. What's your own experience with children who have to get up before dawn and get to school very early?

  • 12:14:46

    STARRWell, you know, look, my daughter is now in sixth grade and she's adjusting to the time change. And it'll be interesting to see when my son goes into sixth grade next year. You know, and I also wonder about how much we're asking our kids to do. I mean, there are kids that are staying up until 1:00, 2:00 in the morning because they have so much homework and they're studying for exams late, so -- and we also have our kids in -- and when I say our kids, this is general, it's not my kids -- in so many different activities.

  • 12:15:10

    STARRAnd I think everybody is so busy these days. It's the first thing someone says to me. I say, "Oh, how are you doing?" They say, "I'm busy." Everyone's so busy these days. How do we take some time to really, you know, breathe a little bit. Changing high school bell times can support that, but it's not going to solve all of that.

  • 12:15:31

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Fran. On Monday evening you mentioned you held the first of four community forums on the proposed change in start times at Paint Branch High School in Silver Spring. What did you hear from the parents who attended?

  • 12:15:43

    STARRWell, you know, it was mixed. There's some parents, like we just heard from Fran, absolutely, this is critically, it's, you know, important to make this change. Other parents said, well, wait a second, and kids, too, what about athletics? Right? What about an after-school job? I don't know, you know, I don't want my elementary child being out later in the day, if we extend that time. So people are worried about the practicalities. Staff also are worried. You know, commuting is a big issue in our region. So there's a whole bunch of different disruptions that may go along with this that we have to calculate and determine before we actually go ahead with making the final decision.

  • 12:16:19

    NNAMDILet's hear from Mary, also in Potomac, Maryland. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:24

    MARYThank you. Dr. Starr, there's lots of us in the community that are very much in support of the later start school time. And we've heard you mention the cost that maybe has been potentially estimated for that. What hasn't been put out there is what the potential cost is for that additional 30 minutes of time for the elementary school day. Could you possibly speak to that issue?

  • 12:16:48

    STARRSo we have not yet worked all of that out, Mary. This is what we're doing now. We have various groups that are discussing it and figuring it out. And part of the challenge here, I think, is that I've put out a recommendation knowing that we haven't tied a ribbon around it and that everything's complete, because I really want to hear from our people, from our families, from our kids, from our staff, about what the implications are and what the costs are. But I wanted to have a solid recommendation and some specific parameters to have that discussion.

  • 12:17:19

    STARRSo we don't yet know what the costs will be for the extended school day. We know that there's just so much opportunity to give more support to our kids, to create some opportunities for some greater enrichment, and to, of course, enable some more planning time and collaboration for our teachers. We don't know what the final cost of that's going to be yet.

  • 12:17:39

    NNAMDIMary, thank you very much for your call. Our guest is Joshua Starr. He is superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools. We're talking about start times and about adding classrooms in Montgomery County Public Schools. If you have a question or comment about either of those issues, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What's the timeline for making a decision and when would the change take place?

  • 12:18:01

    STARRYeah, so we -- if we are able to make this change, it will not take place until the 2015-16 school year. So within the next six months or so, we should have -- we will have completed our engagement effort and we'll have a really good sense from forums, from surveys, from focus groups, from other kinds of analysis of what the practicality is. Then we would have to start preparing for it, which means communicating to folks about what the change would be. The board, of course, would then have to, you know, make the decision that we could go forward with it. And then we'd have to budget it in the next year. So we'll really know the practicality by the spring, about whether it's, you know, whatever way we go forward. And then we've got to build it into the budget and start communicating.

  • 12:18:48

    NNAMDIHere is Mandy in Garrett Park, Maryland. Mandy, your turn.

  • 12:18:54

    MANDYHi. I was on the work study group and started to petition last fall. And one point I've been trying to make to high school students, when I speak to them and they say, oh, no, you know, I can't afford to sleep another hour. I'm so busy. I'm so busy. I'm up doing homework. I've heard Dr. Judy Owens, who's the director of pediatric sleep at Children's National Medical Center. She said twice that five hours of homework could turn into three.

  • 12:19:19

    MANDYSo I'm like, would you like less homework? Would you like more, you know, it will buy them time. Kids will do their homework more efficiently. They won't have to relearn first period. They can focus. She said that in person twice and I didn't repeat it until I'd heard her say it twice. So when I say that to the kids, they're like, oh, well maybe I could get home 45 minutes later if I need to.

  • 12:19:42

    NNAMDIAnd you say to that, Josh Starr?

  • 12:19:44

    STARRSo, first, Mandy, I appreciate all of your advocacy and your participation in this effort. And I think, you know, I think there are two pieces there that actually you bring up. One is, that was so clear in the report, we need to educate people about the importance of sleep. And whether that's kids or that's adults, sleep matters. And regardless of what we're able to do to actually change start times, we need to really, as a public service, educate people about how important sleep is. I, of course, need to take my own advice.

  • 12:20:09

    STARRBut the homework issue is certainly, you know, something that we're going to have to consider. And the fact is we have some parents who want more homework for their kids because they believe that the more homework you have the more rigorous it is. We know that kids are taking a lot of very challenging courses and it comes with homework. But we also know there are other ways of giving kids homework, like the flipped classroom, for example, where the homework burden can be lessened a little bit.

  • 12:20:37

    STARRSo homework is a -- we're going to have to have a community-wide conversation about what's the right level of homework. We're not doing that quite yet but it's certainly on our radar screen.

  • 12:20:46

    NNAMDIMandy, thank you for your call. Let's look at the rapid growth in Montgomery County public school and what it means for school buildings. How many schools are operating beyond capacity and how will the new capital improvement budget you have proposed address the need for more classrooms.

  • 12:21:02

    STARRSo we're growing by about 2500 kids a year. I've proposed a $1.55 billion capital improvement plan over the next six years. We have a $2.2 billion need. Most of our clusters are above capacity. We know we have too many relocatables. You know, we just -- we're a growing county and our growth exceeds everyplace else. We've grown more in the last ten years than Anne Arundel, Frederick, Howard combined -- and Baltimore County combined. And at the same time, Prince George's and Baltimore City have lost about 23,000 kids.

  • 12:21:40

    STARRSo our growth exceeds our county's ability to manage it financially. So we've come together to say, you know what? We need to work with our state delegation, our county executive who's spearheading this effort and our county council and as partners figure out how to make sure that we get the kind of funds from the state that match the growth that we have.

  • 12:22:00

    NNAMDIYou've requested money to build new schools and add classrooms at others, but you'd always delay some of the classroom additions in the current capital improvement plan. Where is the need for expansion greatest and where can you delay it a bit?

  • 12:22:15

    STARRWell, so the delays are, again, really unfortunate and they are because, again, we have this $2.2 billion need. If we get the money that we need from the state, we will, in fact, not have to delay because the bonding authority that we get from the state would enable us to keep those construction projects on track. But it's everywhere, so you can be -- Clarksburg is growing, B.C.C. is growing. It's almost every single cluster that's growing. And we have -- building were built in the '50s and the '60s and even the '70s that aren't really sustainable. And we're taking a very different approach to building buildings.

  • 12:22:51

    STARRWe are using the SMART acronym, right, sustainability, modern buildings, accessible buildings, responsible buildings in terms of efficiencies and timely buildings, because we need to be able to put our kids somewhere. So we're really hoping this joint effort amongst all the county electeds in the state will give us what we need.

  • 12:23:08

    NNAMDISpeaking of timely, another timeline question, what's the timeline for approval of the capital improvement budget? And are there opportunities for parents to weigh in?

  • 12:23:17

    STARRThere are many opportunities. It's all on our website. I think the first one is on November 7, but please go to our website because all of the information is on there. And it will then go to the county executive and to the county council. It's part of the multi-month year-long budget approval process that we go through. But everybody in the county understand the needs that we have regarding growth. And people -- you know, the schools with the signature element of the brand of Montgomery County, the county has invested significantly in capital infrastructure in the past decade. And we really recognize that we need some help at this point.

  • 12:23:51

    NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from someone who says, "The capital improvement budget has not been flat. Going from $1 billion to $2 billion in ten years is hardly flat." I cannot verify those figures. How about you?

  • 12:24:05

    STARRWell, it is keeping pace with our growth. I mean, the operating budget has been pretty flat, you know, over the last couple of years. The fact of the matter is, when you're growing by 2500 kids a year and you continue to grow by that number a year, you have to keep pace. And we also have to fix HVAC systems, right. We have to make sure that our infrastructure is going to keep pace with the demands on our buildings. So the capital budget has to increase with the enrollment increases that we have.

  • 12:24:36

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Don who is not in favor of starting later, who says that, "With truancy rates, the last time I heard, being close to 50 percent, starting school later will only be encouraging what is an epidemic problem." Any indication of the relationship between school start times and truancy rates?

  • 12:24:55

    STARRWell, I don't know where that number is coming from. It doesn't sound anything consistent with what I know. You know, I don't think that there would be a big relationship between truancy rates and starting school later. We have very, very responsible kids. We have responsible families. I think that if we're able to do this, everyone will be able to adjust and our numbers will continue to be what they are.

  • 12:25:19

    NNAMDIEmail from Louie, "Our teenagers need to get more sleep so high school students should start school later. I'm concerned about starting middle schools earlier than at present. There are many teenagers attending middle school who could also use more sleep, not less."

  • 12:25:33

    STARRYeah, you know, I certainly understand that. The issue is just trying to run the multiple tiers of busses that we run and try to manage it all. And, you know, starting middle school ten minutes earlier is not -- you know, it's not necessarily the first choice but it's the only way to make the schedules work. And ten minutes is not going to be -- you know, it's not going to really make or break a kid's success, but we understand. It's one of the reasons why we're going out and talking to folks. And we're understanding the impact on middle school kids.

  • 12:26:06

    NNAMDIDiana in Potomac, Md. It's your turn, Diana. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:26:11

    DIANAOh, thank you so much. Dr. Starr, I wonder if you're familiar with the study from Edina, Minn. from, I think, the late '90s which did exactly this. And started school for high schoolers later, and tracked the SAT scores and found an actual increase. Because the kids were still going to bed at the same time but they were getting more sleep. I have three kids, two of whom have graduated from MTPS and they're in successful Universities. And one still at Churchill High School.

  • 12:26:45

    DIANAAnd I just -- it seems to me if you read books like "The Smartest Kids in the World" or if you listen to NPR, you hear so much evidence about the fact that it's a simple body clock and they can't adjust it and they can't fix it. And the only way to accommodate them is to let them sleep.

  • 12:27:03

    STARRWell, you know, one of the interesting things about Amanda Ripley's book "Smartest Kids in the World" is the experience of the -- I think it was Eric in Korea who was finding that these kids are studying, you know, like 12, 14 hours a day. It's kind of fascinating to see the differences between there and here. We actually were surprised to find that the evidence regarding the relationship between student achievement and start times was not as conclusive as we thought it would be.

  • 12:27:32

    STARRAnd part of that may be how it's measured. And we're also recognizing that it's not just about standardized test scores. It's also about a student's wellbeing, it's about safety, it's about, you know, their just overall health and wellbeing, the obesity rates and all those things. And if we can do that for our kids we should try our best to do it.

  • 12:27:52

    NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call, Diana. Finally there's Claire in Monrovia, Md. Claire, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:28:01

    CLAIREYeah, I was just -- you just said obesity, I was going to comment that my high schooler is so tired when she comes home from school that she wants to take a nap. And it cuts into any physical activity that they might get, which also contributes to her, you know, a later start time would help with her wellbeing. And I just wanted to -- I was curious how does what Montgomery County do affect the other school counties?

  • 12:28:28

    NNAMDIHow does it...

  • 12:28:28

    CLAIREWe're in Frederick obviously and would love to see that change as well.

  • 12:28:32

    NNAMDIIs there a ripple effect in other counties from what Montgomery County does?

  • 12:28:35

    STARRWell, you know, when we came out with our report, I made sure to send it to all the Superintendents in the region and say, look guys, this is coming out. Some of you may not be too happy with me because I know the conversation's been going around for a while. And frankly, you know, for us in Montgomery County, I just -- the reason I put out the recommendation -- we're doing all this community engagement -- is I like to get closure. And whether we can do it or not, whether it's practical or not -- and I very much want to be able to do it if it's practical and if we can afford it -- I wanted to have some closure on it and not go around and around.

  • 12:29:05

    STARRI hope that other counties will use the report that we did just for some research to give them -- to help them, you know. We're always happy to help out in any way that we can but, you know, every county makes its own decision.

  • 12:29:18

    NNAMDIJoshua Starr is superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:29:23

    STARRThanks so much for having me on. And again, please be safe on the roads out there with Halloween today, guys.

  • 12:29:27

    NNAMDIWe're going to be taking a short break. When we come back, refiguring D.C.'s school boundaries. It raises all kinds of race and class issues. We'll talk about that. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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