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Madison middle schools to start later

Students at Madison's middle schools, including Wright Middle School, above, need a later start to classes, pediatricians, parents and now the School Board agree.

More sleep and higher graduation rates for teenagers in the Madison School District are welcome news.

The School Board last week expressed support for later start times at city middle schools, though a three-year implementation won’t begin until 2019. And it’s not clear in which order the city’s middle schools will make the change.

“I would just love to know if it could go faster,” School Board member Kate Toews said.

So would we. And so would the nearly two-thirds of parents and students who in surveys said a later start time for middle schoolers would make their morning routines easier.

But convenience isn’t the reason for shifting the start of middle-school classes from the current 7:35 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. The goal is to improve learning, behavior and health.

Pediatricians have been encouraging school officials for years to adopt later start times for teenagers who are naturally wired to fall asleep later at night and wake up later in the morning. Research also shows the extra sleep can improve attendance, attention spans and academic performance.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups recommend starting middle and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Madison’s four main high schools begin around 8:15 a.m., which is much closer to meeting that standard than the 7:35 a.m. start for city middle schools.

Madison has been slow to make progress on the issue. But we credit the board for doing the right thing now. Final approval is expected in May. No School Board members objected at last week’s board meeting, and Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said the plan will be included in the school budget.

The only question is why this improvement must take so long to kick in. Three Madison middle schools would move to 8:40 a.m. in 2019, under the district’s plan. Four more would adjust to that schedule in 2020, and the remaining five middle schools in 2021.

To accommodate the change, some elementary schools will have to start earlier, at 7:50 a.m, district officials said. But that makes sense, because younger children have a much easier time getting to sleep sooner in the evening and rising earlier in the morning, according to pediatricians.

Besides moving toward a later start time that respects science and research, the Madison School District last week received good news about graduation rates. The percentage of black students graduating from Madison high schools in four years increased by 9 percentage points to 68 percent last year.

And because of a change in how the state counts graduates, students who complete their credits during summer school now can be included. That brought the percentage of black students who graduated on time in Madison to 73 percent.

It’s a dramatic improvement from eight years ago, when fewer than half of all black students graduated in four years. Moreover, the district’s graduation rate for all students is now 83 percent.

An extraordinary increase in the four-year high school graduation rate for black students in the Madison School District last year has left district officials pleased and proud but unable to pinpoint yet exactly why it rose by 14 percentage points from spring 2016 to spring 2017.

City schools still face challenges, including concerns about fights and safety, as well as the loss of students to other districts.

But last week’s news about the district moving to a smarter schedule and graduating more students is reassuring and deserves celebration.