Later RHS start time pushed by petitioners

Kids rising before dawn to catch the yellow bus. Teen zombies shuffling to first period classes in a sleep-deprived stupor. It’s a problem and — though no vote was taken — school officials have decided to look into whether Ridgefield High School’s 7:25 start time can be pushed back.

“Kids are coming into the health office exhausted,” Robin Brown, a school nurse, told the Board of Education.

“Some kids are getting up at 5:15 to catch a 6:30 bus,” she said. “Kids are tired, stressed and anxious from a lack of sleep.”

Faced with a petition signed by more than 700 people and passionate testimony from five parents, Monday night, Nov. 14, Board of Education members urged the school administration to study the problem.

“We were just handed a petition with 700 signatures on it!” board member Sharon D’Orso said.

“What’s our process here? Is this something we value as a board?”

“I’d like to see a road map,” said board member Michael Taylor.

“We’re in the budget season. Can we really make this real for next school year?” asked board member David Cordisco.

“Yes, we can,” said Superintendent of Schools Karen Baldwin.

It requires study, though. Changing start times could have implications for busing and the district’s transportation schedule and costs, she said.

Currently there are four “tiers” of bus runs serving schools on different schedules. The high school day is from 7:25 to 2:15. The two middle schools go from 8 to 2:50. Three elementary schools — Branchville, Ridgebury and Scotland — go from 8:35 to 3:25. And three other elementaries — Barlow Mountain, Farmingville and Veterans Park — go from 9:10 to 4.  

Baldwin said Tuesday that the board asked for “a transportation process overview” to better understand the “any impacts related to later school start times.”

There would be procedural aspects, as well.

“We’d love to look at it. Are there any budget considerations?” Baldwin said.

Cordisco wanted to move ahead.

“Can we put it as an agenda item and road-map it out? What we’d have to do to start changing start times?” he said.

Board Chairwoman Frances Walton said it might be difficult to have something ready for the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Monday, Nov. 28.

“We’re going to try,” Superintendent Baldwin said. But she added that the report might have to come in December.

Earlier RHS start times were investigated a few years back, but no change was made.

The principal model studied then involved switching RHS with some other schools that are on a later bus run, to avoid increasing transportation costs. But there wasn’t much appetite for moving any other schools into the early slot.

And there were also concerns that a different approach — like just pushing the whole structure back — would leave elementary school kids getting out too late in the afternoon.

Parents’ arguments

Colleen Broderick, one of the organizers of the petition effort, spoke Monday night, asking the school board to change the RHS start time to “a healthy hour for the kids.” She presented petitions she said were signed by 709 people.

“Our high school kids start earlier than 90% of high school students,” Broderick said.

“They’re not getting eight and a half, nine hours.”

She reeled off a list of problems — depression, anxiety, risky behavior, cognitive impairment — that she said experts believe may be related to a lack of adequate sleep.

“It’s related to poor performance on tests, car accidents,” she said.

Lack of sleep had been highlighted as a problem for teens by groups including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Broderick said.

Carin Crook said she’d seen the impact as a weekend host mother for one of the A Better Chance students. The girl would come to her home on weekends when the ABC House was closed.

“She’d sleep up to 14 hours,” Crook said. “The kid was exhausted.”

Crook, too, pointed to studies by medical authorities. “The science is clear. It’s up to us to follow it,” she said.

Doug Barile spoke as a professional. “I’m a family therapist here in town, and I connect with a lot of high school and middle school kids,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot anxiety disorders.”

Gigi Christel told the board things had changed since Ridgefield looked at start times three years ago when there were worries about kids making it to Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) events, and the vast majority of high schools were getting out earlier in the day.

“CIAC now supports delayed start times,” Christel said.

And more and more school districts are now looking at changes, impressed by the mounting scientific evidence that teens aren’t getting enough sleep.

“Wilton has been a leader. Greenwich just voted to start at 8:30,” Christel said. “Let’s have Ridgefield be among the leaders.”

The petition

Colleen Broderick provided a link to a posting on the pettion website.

It said, in part: “Science clearly demonstrates that teens who get eight or more hours of sleep:

  • “Experience improved grades and score higher on achievement tests. In one study, SAT scores for the top 10% improved by more than 200 points.
  • “Have better rates of attendance and are tardy less often.
  • “Experience up to 70% fewer car accidents (the later the school start time, the fewer accidents).
  • “Are 68% less likely to suffer sports-related injury.
  • “Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, are less often depressed and irritable, and less likely to struggle with being overweight.

“In teens, the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin begins at about 10:45 p.m. and continues until about 8 a.m., making it difficult to fall asleep before 11 p.m. and to wake early. In other words, the biology of adolescents is in conflict with early start times. …

“The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, and the Centers for Disease Control (among many others) recommend that teens start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

“As signers of this petition, we are not endorsing any particular solution to this problem or any specific start time. We are asking that the Ridgefield BOE and Strategic Planning Committee investigate and prioritize for the 2017 school year viable options for a later start time as recommended by sleep experts for Ridgefield adolescents.”

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