Start times survey: ‘No change’ is popular

The parents don’t seem to be on board the “later start times” bus. Students and staff aren’t embracing change either.

After a months-long push for later school start times — championed by activist parents, driven by scientific studies on adolescent sleep needs, found to have potential savings on bus costs — the Board of Education members will probably decide the question Monday night.

But they’ll go into the discussion having heard that the people who’ll be living any new schedule aren’t really sold on change.  

“We will not be getting more sleep from delaying start times,” Sophia Haber, an RHS junior, told the school board. “This needs further consideration.”

“Rushing and pushing an agenda of later start times for Ridgefield High School is not the best answer for our district or our town,” said Clarice Shirvell, a parent.

“I am for no change in start times,” said Shirvell. “If anything, the district can save money by making elementary schools device-free. … Recent studies have shown a link between ADHD and screen time.”

An audience approaching 100 turned out Monday night, Oct. 16, to hear — and react to — a consultant’s discussion of a survey on community response to various school start and dismissal time scenarios.

‘Pretty happy’

The survey found that the alternative with the most consistent support across various stakeholder groups is to leave things as they are.

“Elementary parents are pretty happy with their current start times,” consultant Jonathan Costa of EdAdvance said. “Middle school start times, people are pretty happy with that, as well.”

And at the high school?

“There is a recognition in the data that high school start times are not as optimal as elementary and middle,” he said.

There were reactions from 19 speakers, mostly parents and a few students.

Some disagreed with the survey results.

“We have a clear-cut scientific reason to change start times — to allow our children to perform at higher levels,” Michelle Christ told the board.

But many supported what they’d heard from the consultant.

“The survey data clearly showed a majority of those who took the survey wanted to keep things as they are,” said Dan Mandelker, a parent with one student entering middle school and another entering high school. “My wife and I do not support changing start times.”

RHS sophomore Questin McQuilkin cited a survey of student opinion done by the RHS student newspaper. “The overwhelming majority of students — 65% — are against changing start times,” McQuilkin said. “I am strongly opposed to any change in start times at Ridgefield High School.”

“Delaying start times will not solve our problems,” said Rachel Zaslavsky, another high school student. “Homework is over-assigned.”

Arguments that younger children’s schedules should not be made worse to benefit high school students were a recurring theme.

“We’re taking away from our youngest, most vulnerable children what they need, and that’s daylight and play time,” Kerry Knop told the school board.

“The options presented by the committee are not healthy for all,” Knop said. “They spend nine of 13 years in elementary and middle school. I think you really need to get the nine years right.”

Survey specifics

The survey was taken by 564 staff members and 1,510 students, and there were close to 6,000 parent responses — 3,092 took the survey a first time, but there was concern people had responded more than once, so a second survey was done, reaching 2,775 parents.

The survey looked at responses to four scenarios, all based on four bus waves, or tiers — the current practice.

The survey asked people to score the various options on a scale ranging from 1 to 5, with 1 “highly opposed” and 5 “highly supportive.” Responses lower than 2.4 were considered negative, and those higher than 3 were viewed as positive. Those in the 2.4-to-3 range were considered as representing “no opinion.”

The most popular option was leaving things as they are now: the high school going first, with classes from 7:25 to 2:15; the two middle schools going next, from 8 to 2:50; then three elementary schools (Ridgebury, Branchville and Scotland) from 8:35 to 3:25; and the other three elementaries (Veterans Park, Barlow Mountain and Farmingville) attending school from 9:10 to 4.

Keeping everything the same — called “approach 4” — was supported by all groups surveyed, with parents giving it a 3.2 score, staff giving it 3.8, and students, 3.4.

The other option to garner support from at least one group was “approach 1” — projected to save $90,000 by needing one less bus. In this the two middle schools would go first, from 7:55 to 2:45. The high school would have classes from 8:30 to 3:20. Elementary school would be last: Branchville, Ridgebury and Scotland from 8:50 to 3:40; and Barlow, Farmingville and Veterans Park would have school from 9:15 to 4:05.

This was supported by parents with the same 3.2 they gave to the “stay the same” option. It got a neutral response from staff (2.7) and a negative review by students (2.5).

The option that scored the worst was “approach 2,” which would have elementary schools going first: Branchville, Barlow and Ridgebury from 7:35 to 2:25, and Farmingville, Scotland and Veterans Park from 8 or 8:05 to 2:50 or 2:55. The high school would go from 8:35 to 3:25. And the two middle schools would be last, from 9:10 to 4.

This option — projected to need two fewer buses, saving $180,000 — got 2.4 (the bottom of the “no opinion” range) from parents and staff, and hit negative territory with students, who gave it a 2.3.

One option the board sent along to survey takers would cost more money — “approach 3” costing an extra $1.5 million. It had the middle schools going first, from 8 to 2:50; the high school from 8:25 to 3:15; and the elementary schools last, with Branchville, Scotland and Ridgebury going from 8:40 to 3:30 and Farmingville, Barlow and Veterans Park going from 9 to 3:50.

This most-cost option got 2.4, “no opinion,” scores from all three groups.

There were strong reactions to some of the options at Monday’s meeting, however.

“Ending school with closure at 4 p.m. is unacceptable,” said Joe Griffin, who has three kids at Veterans Park.

“I don’t believe elementary school kids should be going to school before 8 in the morning,” said Janine Carboni.

The discussion was also wide-ranging, hitting a variety of related topics.

“Screens off 30 minutes before bedtime,” said George Shirvell. “Devices are addictive.”

“The more free time a teenager had, that just leads to bad, bad things,” said Eliza Libbart.

“I haven’t heard anyone talking about family time. My high schooler gets home at 6 o’clock,” said Noelle Carr of Midrocks Road. “We still manage to have family dinner every night.”

“The first priority should always be health,” said Frances Cao. “We should spend enough on buses so we’re not defeating our first priority.”

“How the heck are we paying for this? I really don’t believe we’re saving money,” said Anne Blood. “It’s Oct. 16 — we froze our budget back in September.”