Thomas Jefferson High School graduation ceremony

Thomas Jefferson High graduates attended a ceremony June 16.

Richmond Public Schools on Wednesday announced plans to start high school classes 10 minutes earlier this year after state officials found the division hadn’t been keeping students in class long enough to meet state course requirements needed to graduate.

The school district said it doesn’t know how far back the problem, identified by the Virginia Department of Education, extends.

Students will now report for high school at 7:50 a.m. rather than 8 a.m., an announcement that came less than a week before the first day of school. The school day for high schools is still scheduled to end at 2:45 p.m. Before, high schools did not have students spend enough time in class to properly award them course credit.

The state Department of Education doesn’t plan to revoke student degrees, department spokesman Charles Pyle said.

Wednesday’s disclosure is the latest revelation about the school district’s struggles with enforcing both its own procedures and state policies related to high school class credits, an issue that has frustrated parents, students and School Board members alike.

Earlier this year a parent at Open High School, which is an exception to the revised start times, pointed out that school officials hadn’t been properly weighting the grade point averages for dual-enrollment and International Baccalaureate students. A policy approved by the previous School Board was never implemented, leading to lower GPAs for the advanced students.

The current board recently approved a policy designed to weigh the GPAs correctly.

Just weeks after the GPA issue came to light, the new RPS administration led by Superintendent Jason Kamras said the district’s attendance policy hadn’t been implemented. In an emergency action, the School Board suspended the policy. If the policy had been enforced, the graduation status of about 1 in 3 seniors would have been at risk.

Now, less than a week before the first day of school, RPS is changing a policy — without School Board approval — to get in line with state requirements. No changes have been made to the start times for elementary or middle schools.

Most high schools in the city will now start at 7:50 a.m. Huguenot High School will start five minutes earlier than all the other schools, commencing the day at 7:45 a.m., “to accommodate for transition times between classes due to the size of their building and student body,” RPS spokeswoman Kenita Bowers said.

“Given the time it took to research this and analyze each school’s unique bell scheduling needs, a final decision was made recently and is being shared with parents as soon as possible,” Bowers said when asked why the decision came so close to the start of the school year.

In 2015, the Richmond School Board vowed to eventually flip the start times for elementary schools and high schools, pushing the start of the high school day from 7:25 a.m. to 8 a.m. It is unclear if that was the start of the lack of compliance. Bowers could not say how far back the problem goes.

“If I was aware of an issue, I took actions or gave directives to address the issue,” Dana Bedden, the school system’s superintendent before Kamras, said in an email.

Bowers said the commitment to flip the start times is not an RPS priority anymore, “but the current board may choose to revisit it .”

School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said: “The timing of the adjustment is concerning. That’s why we must ensure that the students and families of RPS are well informed of the changes.”

While the School Board approved changes to start times in the past, Bowers said the board did not in this case because “the number of requisite course hours are mandated by the state.”

Betsy Milburn, the parent who exposed the GPA problem, said Wednesday: “As a school system, RPS seems to have a problem in continuing process and following process.”

She added: “As a parent, to have buy-in, I prefer to see transparency and openness when policies are changed.”

The School Board’s next meeting is Tuesday, the night of the first day of school.

More than 9 in 10 high schools in the U.S. start before 8:30 a.m., according to the most recent federal study, while 83 percent of middle schools start before then.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of school start times by state found that just 10 percent of Virginia’s middle and high schools started before 8 a.m., with an average start time of 8:04 a.m.

The CDC cites early school start times as a reason kids don’t get enough sleep, an effect that the federal agency says “is associated with several health risks including being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and using drugs, as well as poor academic performance.” Studies have also shown that later start times in high schools are associated with a reduction in car accidents.

In Hanover County, high schools start at 8:30 a.m.

Every high school in Chesterfield County also starts at 8:30 a.m., a change made this year by the county School Board. The school district’s high schools started at 7:25 a.m. last year.

“Our target all along has been to move high school starting times,” said then-School Board Chairman Javaid Siddiqi when announcing the new start times. “This is based on research that shows a scientifically proven sleep pattern that does not align with our current schedules.”

Henrico County’s high schools start even later, with the first instruction block starting at 9 a.m.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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