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'7:15 is too early': Pittsburgh Public Schools parents urge board to change high school start times

A student runs towards a school bus.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

For much of the school year, the first bell in four of Pittsburgh’s high schools rings before the sun rises. With significant bus driver shortages and eliminated routes, many students walk to school in the dark for a 7:15 start time. A group of parents are working to change that.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to give adolescent brains enough sleep as their bodies develop; teens require more hours of sleep than children or adults. Carol Smith told the board that her teenagers would need to fall asleep at 9 p.m. to get enough rest to get to school on time and in turn are constantly sleep deprived.

“Providing a later start time will improve physical and mental health, safety, academic performance, and quality of life,” the parent of two PPS high schoolers said. “There are other factors that affect adolescents, but certainly 7:15 a.m. is too early.”

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Jeff Bigham’s oldest child has a few years before high school. He says he hopes by the time his family gets there the district will follow the advice of medical experts. He told the board on Monday during its monthly public hearing that by his count, Montour High School is the only school in the county to start earlier than Pittsburgh Public.

“Transportation is harder than it used to be but what are we actually doing to solve this problem?” he asked. “We need to start later. Make it happen.”

District officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment from WESA over several days.

Bigham has met with Superintendent Wayne Walters about his concerns. He told the board that administrators said ongoing transportation challenges would prevent scheduling changes.

The district contracts a number of local bus companies that employ their own drivers. Those companies have faced recruiting challenges since before the pandemic, but it came to a head in 2021 with the district delaying the start of the school year because it didn’t have enough drivers to get kids to school.

All but one Pittsburgh high school begin the day at 7:15. The Creative and Performing Arts school starts 10 minutes later.

The state’s largest school district also blames the ongoing bus driver shortage for stalling its plan to start high schools at 9 a.m. The School District of Philadelphia pledged to make that change for the 2022-23 school year, looking to tier school start times, but the district said last May that it still didn’t have the staffing to do so.

Pittsburgh parents, though, are hopeful that district leaders can find creative solutions. Several staff members on Monday noted increased behavioral disruptions in schools as they have for the last two school years. Parents urging the board to shift start times said that part of the solution could be more rest for high schoolers.

Parent Christina Ruggiero said that while later start times won’t solve all behavioral problems, it wouldn’t make it worse. She said students are too tired to take full advantage of learning opportunities.

“Why can’t they take advantage of it? Because they are late. And then they become truant. And then they enter the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said.

She said that younger children who are naturally awake earlier should go to school first rather than last.

Similar concerns were raised with Governor Josh Shapiro last week during a visit to a Westmoreland County high school. He was there to talk about mental health funding and one student suggested later start times. While Shapiro said he couldn’t make any promises, he said he would take up the idea with the secretary of education.