In Mounds View, school buses come before the health of kids

One dad's fight for the right to put his kid on a school bus when the sun is shining means an expensive overhaul of the status quo.

One dad's fight for the right to put his kid on a school bus when the sun is shining means an expensive overhaul of the status quo.

Mounds View dad John MacHalec has a son who just started middle school this year, which means he has had to start dragging his groggy kid out of bed at about 6:25 in the morning.

At that time MacHalec can hear the high school bus lurching down the street, carrying the neighbor's ninth grader. It's a reminder there's only more pain to come once his child graduates to Mounds View High.

MacHalec asked that neighbor what it's been like to ship his kid off so early every day. The man's voice rose as he complained about his son's 5:15 wake-up call to make that bus. His wife gets up at five to start making breakfast. It was a major disruption in family life.   

Dread kicked in. MacHalec started thinking he had to do something. 

Ungodly start times for high schoolers have been contentious for a long time. The research is clear: Delaying the first bell till 8:30 or later improves grades and leads to major health benefits. High schoolers who get more sleep have less chance of getting into alcohol and drugs and car crashes. They're less likely to be depressed and, as MacHalec found out, they're also less likely to kill themselves.

Mounds View High has had three suicides in five years. Wayzata High has had four in two years. Obviously lots of things could lead a kid to consider suicide, but MacHalec thinks there's a connection. If suicide is the fatal part of depression, schools have to decrease depression if they have the power to do so. 

MacHalec took a couple of large studies by the Centers for Disease Control and crunched their numbers to fit Mounds View. He found that by starting high schools at 8:35 a.m., 59 kids won't seriously consider attempting suicide over the next year and 80 will be spared a serious episode of depression. 

University of Minnesota professor Glenn Gourley, who's also a pediatrician as well as a Mounds View High father, checked MacHalec's methodology and found it legit. 

"There have been these suicides that the school systems tend not to publicize very much, because they're concerned with copycats," Gourley says. "But if you make sure your kids get more sleep, it decreases depression and the likelihood of suicide. Especially for teens, their pre-frontal cortex still is not mature, which makes it more likely they'll make a really bad decision. He's trying to find an issue that resonates with the community."

Gourley, who has sixth, eighth, and ninth graders, says he realized Mounds View High starts as early as 7:25 when he got his son's bus pass in the mail. It made him blanch. His freshman is supposed to be out on the corner waiting at 6:25, hours before the average adult heads to work. 

He recalls a PTA meeting a few months ago where a representative from the district said the school board voted unanimously to keep start times where they were. Change would require more buses and drivers. But he wondered if the added expense was worth it. Edina had done it, and its district consistently tops national rankings. 

"If you could save the life of one kid, wouldn't it be worth it?"

Mounds View isn't budging on start times, but Wayzata's superintendent recently suggested delaying high school and making the elementary kids take the early routes. Elementary parents flipped out, gathering 200 signatures in protest over one weekend and citing many of the same reasons that MacHalec had used. 

Everyone, it seems, agrees that starting school early is terrible. But if somebody's kid is getting thrown under the bus, nobody wants it to be theirs.

There's just no way to make everybody happy without spending millions in transportation, says Mounds View spokesman Colin Sokolowski. It's not that the district doesn't understand that they'd have more successful, happier kids — not to mention better rested staff. But with 11 schools, 11,000 students, and three tiers of busing, any change would have a massive impact.

"If we were to go down that road, we would need a sense from our community, K-12 wide, what their interest is in this and do they understand what the consequences could be," Sokolowski says. "Could it be good for our high school students to get more sleep? Well, sure. Money is a very significant issue in this."