Nashville mayor-elect wants to ‘fix high school start times’

MNPS high schools currently have the earliest start time in the country
MNPS high schools currently have the earliest start time in the country, Freddie O'Connell said.
Published: Sep. 20, 2023 at 10:42 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 20, 2023 at 6:15 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - One of the top priorities for Nashville’s newly elected mayor, Freddie O’Connell, is helping working families and their students be more successful by guaranteeing after-school care program seats and pushing back high school start times. Both issues are included on the list of 15 things he wants to fix on day one in office.

Metro Nashville Public Schools currently has the earliest high school start in the entire country. Most schools begin their days at 7:05 a.m., an MNPS spokesperson said, while a handful of magnet schools start at 8 a.m. because families are responsible for their own transportation.

O’Connell cited research out of Florida that shows moving back start times by an hour improved math test scores by 8 percent, which equals about three months of learning.

“7 a.m. is too early and bad for both student performance and mental health,” O’Connell said in a statement to WSMV4. “As mayor, I will partner with MNPS to solve transportation issues and other obstacles to move back those start times, so students get a better learning environment. Not all high schoolers ride the bus to school, and we should make more public transit options available.”

The Mayor-Elect said he wants to make accommodations for students needing to leave school early for work or to pick up younger siblings. However, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and its board have control over start times, not the mayor’s office.

An MNPS spokesperson said the district has considered pushing back start times during the ongoing Metro Schools Reimagined program, but it is a complicated process that includes moving resources that are shared with middle and elementary schools. They are unsure how long it could take to implement a new schedule with later high school start times.

A nonprofit, Start School Later (SSL) Metro Nashville, TN, is aiming to get Metro Nashville Public Schools a later start time. According to the nonprofit’s website, SSL Metro Nashville is dedicated to healthy, safe and equitable school hours.

“Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) includes approximately 89,000 students. Nashville has one of the earliest start times in the country on record,” SSL said. “All Metro high schools start at 7:05 a.m., with the exceptions of two academic magnets, one performing arts high school, East Literature High School, and Big Picture High School. None of these exceptions use public school buses for transportation, so they ‘get’ to start at 8.”

Anna Thorsen has worked with the group and has two high school students of her own. She said the process of getting her junior and senior up at 5:30 a.m. every morning and out the door to school can be “heartbreaking” because they have to operate hours before their bodies are ready.

“The whole family has to help in,” Thorsen said. “We are helping wake them up. We are having to make lunches for groggy kids. We are having to make sure they get breakfast on the way out the door, like basic nutrition needs.”

“In Nashville, we are really left pretty far behind,” Thorsen said. “It’s frustrating to parents who have been trying to do this work and have seen the tax that it is taking on all of our children. Our district, which does a great job in so many areas and purports to care about the whole child, is really falling short on a critical element, and that is teen sleep.”

Other parents, like Harry Birdsong, are concerned about how later start times might impact neighborhoods where families have designed schedules around the current school hours. He said this change might also hurt high school sports and students who have to work a job after school.

“If the kids get out of school later or have to go to school later, there ain’t no telling what they might be doing before they get to school,” Birdsong said. “The parents can’t see them getting to school. There is no supervision there. There is just a lot of open play for the kids.”

Thorsen said there are simple answers to these issues she is hopeful O’Connell and school leaders can approve to make later high school hours possible. It includes sliding hours of other support services within MNPS so families can still access them.