Citing research on the sleep requirements of adolescents and accounts of sleep deprivation and increased school work, several parents spoke at the Board of Education meeting Tuesday night in favor of pushing back the high school’s start time.
“Anxiety, depression, stress, auto accidents, tardiness, missing class — those are just some of the negative effects that come from a lack of sleep,” said one high school parent. “With colleges wanting more rigorous courses, better SAT and ACT scores, involvement in community service, clubs and sports, these kids are going very late into the evening trying to fulfill all these requirements we’re demanding of them.”
A concerned father said, “My daughter gets less sleep than I do and that’s unbelievable. She woke up at 4:30 in the morning the other day, after going to bed at midnight, to finish her school work she couldn’t finish the night before and she still couldn’t get it all done before school started.
“We need to find a balance between start time and work load,” he continued. “Even a half hour delay would make a considerable difference for these kids.”
The debate over high school start time — now 7:25 a.m. — wasn’t unfamiliar to board members, who addressed the issue in March 2011, but were didn’t take any action because of the cost.
Cost may still be the greatest roadblock facing administrators in putting a plan into action. However, the amount may not be as steep as it was two years ago.
“I made the recommendation for board to evaluate a later start time at the high school based on research back in 2011 but the economy wasn’t doing well at the time and it was a non-discussion because the logistics of reorganizing the bus system made it financially infeasible,” said Superintendent Deborah Low. “With that said, when you talk about changing the high school start time now, with the logistics of a four-tier bus system in place, it is still not possible.
“I understand that the economy is improving and that the reports and evidence speak favorably for us to do this, but I ask you to pay attention to the logistics before getting too caught up in the pros of this idea,” she continued.
“We would have to go from a four-tier system back to a three-tier system, which is significantly more expensive and still financially hard to get approved — not to mention, someone has to take the earliest time slot that the high school currently has.”
Ms. Low explained to the board that a three-tier system would cost more because it require more buses.
The four-tier system has created four sets of start and finish times in the district: Ridgefield High School, 7:25 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.; the two middle schools from 8 a.m. to 2:50 p.m.; with three elementary schools from 8:25 a.m. to 3:25 p.m.; and three others from 9:10 to 4 p.m.
Ms. Low added that the least expensive version of a three-tier bus system would produce longer bus routes that will push back the already late times kids are getting home.
The members debated the topic for less than 30 minutes Tuesday, concluding that they wanted the administration to come back with a cost breakdown of the three and four tier bus system, a hypothetical school start time schedule, and a draft of a comprehensive survey that could be sent out to parents, students, and high school faculty before any board action is taken.
“I realize that in the abstract, it sounds good,” Ms. Low said of the hypothetical schedule. “But once paper it will look a lot different.”
Board members discussed cutting some items out of their budget so they could afford the increased cost if the district were to downsize its bus system.
“If it’s going to cost $500,000, I think we’re going to have to cut some things and definitely make some tough choices in our budget,” said board member John Palermo.
Despite the cost and the potential budget cuts, several members were still adamant about how important it was to push back the start time at the high school.
“The academic climate has changed over the last two years since we last looked at changing the start time — things are different now — there’s the Common Core and its requirements and the rigorous demands put forth by colleges,” said board member Karen Sulzinsky. “We have to take this idea seriously now because the environment up at the high school isn’t getting easier or less stressful — it’s only getting more challenging and more demanding.
“Our focus should be around education, not money — this will have on-going benefits for all students in the district,” she continued. “We should not let the bus system dictate what need to do to provide kids the necessary tools to succeed.
Besides the bus system switch, Ms. Low pressed board members about which part of the district would fill the earliest time slot.
“Who replaces the high school?” she asked several times.
Every member agreed that they couldn’t “logically put the middle school first” and Ms. Sulzinsky suggested that elementary students could fill that time slot.
“All the research says elementary kids should go first,” she said.
The League of Women Voters had created a School Start Time Committee back in May 2010 and presented its research to the board in March 2011.
League members were careful in not making a specific recommendation to the school system, since the study had specifically been about the science of sleep patterns and not “practical considerations” such as transportation costs, or the effect of a change on sports programs, after-school jobs, and family considerations such as teens watching younger siblings while parents work.
Those factors, coupled with the financial problems, created significant push back around an idea many board members believed would pass without much debate.
“A few years ago I thought it was going to pass favorably, but there ended up being a lot of push back,” said Vice-chairman Irene Burgess.