High Schools, Students Adjusting to Later Start
BY HANNAH SHARPE
As the first six-week grading period ends for Moore County’s high schools, students and teachers continue to adapt to changes for the year ahead.
Since the start of the school year, high schools have been operating on a later schedule as part of the system’s new transportation consolidation plan. It created a dual-route bus system in which elementary schools and high schools share buses on separate routes. School officials estimate that the changes will save about $700,000 a year.
The plan shifted high school start times 45 minutes later, with school beginning at 9 a.m. and dismissing at 4 p.m.
This transition parked 18 buses, and the school system currently runs 40 of its 120 buses on paired routes that pick up elementary students first, drop them off and then pick up high school students.
In the meantime, students and teachers, as well as their families, have had to adjust to the changes.
Some athletic practices and club activities have been moved to mornings before school, and principals have had to be more flexible with staff schedules, holding some meetings and professional development sessions before class as well.
After a systemwide principals’ meeting at the central office Wednesday, the county’s three high school principals — Scott Absher from North Moore, Joel County from Pinecrest and Robin Lea from Union Pines — sat down to discuss how the first few weeks of school have gone with the changes.
“It takes a couple of weeks to settle in and get back into the routine, but I think we’ve had a great start,” County said.
Lea and Absher agreed.
“All three of us do a great job of communicating with our staffs and our parents and the community about what we’re doing and why,” Absher said. “Whether you agree with [the time change] or not, let’s focus on the positives and things that we can control.”
Though all three agree that the year is going smoothly, each principal has done his or her fair share of work to help the adjustment work.
At Pinecrest, first-day confusion stemmed from a new traffic pattern for pick-up and drop-off on campus to accommodate buses arriving at the same time as car traffic for the later start time.
“The traffic has always been a challenge because this school really wasn’t built for 2,100 kids,” County said. “We’ve got between 500 and 600 student drivers, and they’re trying to get on or off campus the same time we’ve got 600 to 700 parents trying to pick up and drop off and then 21 or 22 buses trying to get on and off.”
Instead of parking buses in the bus parking lot like last year, buses drop students off at the auditorium parking lot, and parents drop students off in the gym parking lot in front of the school.
County said it took some tweaking on those first few days of school, but Pinecrest ultimately came up with a traffic pattern that he believes is the best and the safest the high school has ever had. He credits that success to the ongoing dialogue with teachers, students and parents.
“We’ve had no problem getting our buses in and out and in 20 minutes,” he said. “We’ve got all that car traffic in and out. The partnership with the whole school community has helped us figure that out. We’re at where we were before, if not better and probably a little safer.”
County added that he has heard positive comments from parents and PTA members saying that the later time for high school allows parents to get their children to different schools on time.
“They can drop them off first and then head on to the middle school or the high school,” he said. “It gives them time to get the kids to the different schools without somebody being late.”
County said that though the change has been a big adjustment for everyone, it is ultimately a simple solution to bigger budget burdens the school system faced this year.
“The fact is that with the consolidation of the bus routes, we’ve saved jobs, and we’ve kept the ratio of students to teachers lower,” he said. “I would rather do that and give up some buses than have our class size get bigger, so really, we’ve turned it into a positive.”
Teach ‘Bell to Bell’
Lea has heard Union Pines parents take issue with the school’s new policy that prevents them from signing students out of school between 3:15 p.m. and dismissal at 4 p.m. without a legitimate excuse.
Some have complained that the policy punishes all parents for the actions of a few who regularly sign their children out of school early for the convenience of getting home earlier.
Lea said she is willing to work with parents to accommodate their needs, and she emphasized that parents can sign students out if they have a legitimate reason for doing so.
“We’re not forbidding parents from picking up their children after 3:15 p.m.,” she said. “You do need to have a legitimate excuse or a real need — doctors appointments, dental appointments, a family emergency — anything like that. We’re not going to keep you from your child. It was just trying to discourage those parents who thought, ‘I’m already here, let me just pick up here.’ [By doing that,] you’re robbing a child of instructional time.”
Lea said the school implemented the policy after seeing a pattern of early sign-outs emerge last year, especially among parents with students attending local elementary and middle schools as well.
“It was very tempting to come to the high school and just pick up the older child while they were out,” Lea said. “The teacher teaches bell to bell. So if you pull your child out at 3:30 p.m., they still have 30 minutes of class to go. Once in a while, it’s fine, but to be honest, we saw some patterns. Those are the parents that I need to have conversations with. I know things happen. I know you have appointments outside of school, but we need to be protective of instructional time.”
She added that parents are not the only ones having to adjust to the changes.
“I know some of the teachers had to make adjustments with their own families,” she said. “It’s not just the parents who are looking at it. Everyone went through an adjustment period.”
All three principals have had to work with coaches and teachers to help students continue to participate in athletics and other student activities, but they admit that this year, it has been a challenge trying to accommodate both academic and extracurricular aspects of student life.
Athletic schedules, which are made a year ahead of time, were already in place for the 2011-2012 year when the Board of Education adopted the new transportation policy.
Student athletes are now missing more class when they leave school early to travel to play other teams in their respective conferences.
“That’s one of the challenges that we continue to try to figure out in what’s best for the student,” Lea said.
The principals hope that next year, athletic directors can work with others in the conferences to create a better situation.
“We’ve got discussions going on for the future contests to see if we can work together so that kids miss as little school possible,” County said.
Absher said he and his staff do what they can to accommodate students, and all three principals said that their coaches and teachers work together to make sure students have the chance to catch up on missed work.
“We all work hard trying to keep our kids in class,” Absher said. “It’s really last minute when we let them out. They’ve got to have time to get to a school they’re going to, and warm up properly and prepare to perform. It’s something we’re working with.”
The principals said students have opportunities to meet with teachers before and after school, as well as during lunch periods, to make up work.
Along with the additional time to make up work, morning practices and club meetings before class starts have become the norm for some.
“If it works for the students involved in that activity [they do it],” Lea said. “If transportation is an issue, then the club adviser or the coach is not going to choose that morning time to meet. If it works out for the members, then they’ll come in.”
Though the schools ask parents not to drop students off at school until 8:30 a.m., students can also come to school earlier to take advantage of online schoolwork opportunities, as well as tutoring options at all three high schools.
If they are not at school for a particular activity, students are relegated to certain areas on campus where they can be supervised until the bell rings for class.
“I think we’ve made some adjustments [for students who get to school early],” Lea said. “We can’t accommodate all 1,200 kids [at Union Pines], but that’s what all of us are doing. Supervision is what our concern is. All of us strive to maintain a safe campus. If you just drop your child off without knowing that they’re going to be supervised, that’s not a safe situation.”
Though none of the principals said they noticed a significant change in student attitudes, County believes students benefit with the later start to their day.
“Kids are pretty responsive and flexible,” he said. “They’re going to stay up until midnight or 2 a.m. regardless of when you start school, but if you go with the research, the majority of the research shows that a later start time is to their benefit.”
Almost every month, County meets with a student focus group that consists of students from varying grades, academic levels and socioeconomic backgrounds. He said most of them appreciate having the opportunity to meet with teachers and do student activities before school.
“Most of them have been very positive about having access to teachers prior to the school day rather than after 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., when everybody’s tired and wants to go home,” he said.
Closer to Capacity
Charles McDowell, executive supervisor of the system’s transportation services, said the consolidation plan has helped the school system improve its efficiency rating for the state, while also saving the system money.
McDowell presented a transportation report on the first month of school to the Moore County Board of Education at its last regular meeting, showing that bus ridership increased significantly in the first few weeks of school, allowing the bus fleet to operate at 87.5 percent capacity.
Though bus seating capacity varies based on the size of the bus and the age group riding, the system uses an average capacity of 60 in determining its capacity.
McDowell stressed that the increased capacity percentage helps improve the system’s efficiency rating in terms of receiving transportation funding from the state. The more efficient and the safer school transportation systems are, the more money they are entitled to receive.
Ridership was at 6,300 students daily system-wide in the first month, up from last year’s average of 6,165 students
Ridership over the past two years has seen minimal changes, hovering just under 6,200 students riding daily at 75 percent capacity. This number represents the number of students being picked up to go to school and dropped off at home.
He added in his report that the school system is saving on transportation costs by parking 18 buses, which will now serve as reserves in case a bus breaks down or additional vehicles are needed.
The cost of a brand new bus is roughly $80,000, and the system would have needed two additional buses without the consolidated plan.
Making it Work
As the high schools settle in for the long haul, all three principals say they have bigger issues to deal with than school start times.
“We take it one day at a time,” Absher said.
Besides the normal work of a school day, the three are trying to help their staffs do more with smaller budgets as well as working to alleviate the uncertainty that comes with the Board of Education's search for a new superintendent for the school system.
In addition, all of the system’s schools are preparing to implement a brand new state curriculum next year.
“There are so many changes, that it really takes a semester or two to get it down and get in the groove,” County said.
Absher said he consistently finds that the North Moore community understands these hurdles, and he tries to focus his staff on the positive things they can do to help students succeed.
“We’re in the student business,” he said. “We don’t focus on things we can’t control. We can control what takes place when that child is on our campus, and that is our focus. We’re going to be positive about it, and we’re going to work hard to take care of our kids. Our community knows we do that.”
Lea stressed that community support is crucial for all three schools to find success.
“We just need continued support from our community and parents and understand that this is a partnership,” Lea said. “Have patience with us.”
“And get involved,” County added. “We need their involvement as a barometer to really gauge how we’re doing, and without their involvement, we don’t have as clear a picture of what we’d like to have.”
Contact Hannah Sharpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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