Education board looks into later start times

Changing school start times won’t be easy.

But the Board of Education took the first step Monday when its strategic planning committee met with a focus group — district principals, the high school athletic director — to gauge general feelings about changing school start times.

A handful of parents were present as well, but only as observers. Anne Blood, high school co-president of the PTA, told the board that high school parents would like to be surveyed before any action is taken.

The committee concluded that there were two main goals in the planning process — minimize negative effects on after-school activities, such as clubs and sports, and maintain the length of class time at the high school.

Ridgefield High School leaders also said the school day could not be shortened, as it has been in Wilton, to accommodate later start times.

Superintendent Karen Baldwin said she would immediately begin planning future focus groups with parents, students and community members, as well as surveys.

Parents

Blood said a significant number of parents were concerned about changes to the school day.

“This initiative cannot be done in a vacuum or done quickly to satisfy a small but vocal group,” she told the board during the public comment period of Monday night’s meeting.

According to Blood, many parents have been waiting to voice their opinions through a survey that hasn’t been delivered yet.

“Silence is not agreement,” she said. “There are no details to agree to.”

“We have been telling parents that Baldwin said a survey will come out, and parents won’t answer blindly.”

Athletics

High school Principal Stacey Gross said that shifting the schedule could result in an increase in missed class time for athletes who sometimes have to leave 15 minutes before dismissal to get to sporting events on time.

The possibility of holding some practices and other services, like counseling and extra help, before school was also considered. However, the focus group agreed it would be counterproductive.

“I would just re-emphasize that club activities aren’t before school because then kids would be getting up early anyway,” said one high school official.

Athletic Director Dane Street said shifting the practice schedule could potentially deter current coaches from keeping their jobs if they couldn’t coordinate the new times with other commitments.

Other challenges

Gross said another potential challenge stems from the contract with the district’s food provider, Chartwells.

“We’ve had a hard time getting them to stay after school, and we would really need them to be on board,” she said.

“Even though it would still be the same amount of hours, they would shift later.”

Board Chairwoman Fran Walton wondered about the possibility of changing the schedule so students would have the last period for athletics or club activities. This way, potential conflicts with after-school activities, resulting from an early dismissal, could be avoided.

Board member David Cordisco inquired about online classes as a possible solution.

“There are more kids doing online learning now. That’s something we’re really proud of,” said Gross.

But she said that the decision would be up to the board.

“It’s about how you feel about granting a diploma based on classes that weren’t necessarily RHS,” she said.

The high school principal said that graduation requirements would not change regardless of what the board decides.

“Whether you change start times, or not, there is no change in graduation requirements,” said Gross.

“We will be starting to look at the schedule again.”

Elementary schools

Branchville principal Keith Margolus advised that elementary start times shouldn’t be altered.

“I’m in this sweet spot for Branchville, an 8:35 start. It fits for an elementary school,” he said. “It’s hard for me to say I would suggest change.”

“There’s an 8 to 9 optimum time, everyone knows the time little people get up,” another elementary principal added.

“It’s a great optimum hour to shift those three schools to recapture 8 to 9 that would be optimal for us.”

What’s next

Baldwin will start assigning surveys and focus groups.

She estimates that by June they will have formed another committee as themes emerge from the research, “to work collectively across the community on this issue and continue to address what might emerge in focus groups and surveys."