Later start time looming for some school districts

It's an odd occurrence indeed when parents can be found gathering to obstruct the advice of pediatric researchers and the medical community.

But in recent months, as superintendents and school officials across the region floated official plans to impose a later start of classes for adolescents, those unusual battle lines have been a common sighting across the Middlesex League.

Just a few weeks ago in Stoneham, new Superintendent John Macero found himself defending a proposal to shift the community high school's morning bell by 35 minutes from 7:50 a.m. to 8:25 a.m., while accompanying time adjustments would also be made for middle school and elementary pupils.

At the time, the school administrator, who had tried but failed to implement a similar change at his last job as Winthrop's superintendent, was responding to a chorus of protests from citizens attending a public hearing at Stoneham High.

"For parents who have to work, it's not making any sense. I still have to go to work at the same time," complained one resident, who labeled the adjustment as a hardship for working parents.

"My child will still be up early even if you change the start time, because I have to go to work,” another parent later argued. “Not every employer is accommodating.”

In Winchester, where the local School Committee plans to vote later next month on an initiative similar to Stoneham's proposal, a School Start Time Study group has recommended delaying the beginning of high school and middle school classes by 45 minutes to 8:30 a.m.

Special task forces in Lexington and Belmont have pitched nearly identical 45 minute schedule adjustments for high school pupils, while a handful of communities, including Burlington, Watertown, and Melrose, have already sanctioned schedule changes that include alterations to elementary and middle school starting times.

Meanwhile, Woburn's School Committee, which has repeatedly mentioned the concept over the past year, is just getting ready to enter the fray by beginning its own deliberations over a later start of school for adolescents.

As the Middlesex League gets more serious about a later start of school for adolescents, the City of Boston, reeling from a public outcry over its plan to institute sweeping schedule adjustments for all grade levels, has backed off completely from its proposal.

Last Friday, Boston Schools' Superintendent Tommy Chang confirmed the district will be scrapping its plans to have teenagers begin school later, while youngsters will report to their buildings earlier each morning.

Stipulating the adjustment may be resuscitated down the road, Chang conceded the recently debated proposal caused "a more significant disruption to family schedules" than intended.

Science meets reality

The ongoing debate locally in regards to school starting times is rooted in a March of 2016 position statement by the Middlesex League of Superintendents, in which the leaders of 12 area school districts agreed high school classes should start no earlier than 8 a.m.

The professional association, which includes the top administrators from The Middlesex East communities of Burlington, Stoneham, Reading, Woburn, Winchester, Tewksbury, and Wilmington, further agreed to officially consider by 2018 a regional change, whereby classes would begin between 8 and 8:30 a.m. for all adolescents across the Middlesex League.

“The research is clear on this topic that later start times support the social and emotional needs of our high school students. The Middlesex League Superintendents collectively wanted to express our clear support for later high school start times,” read the 2016 statement.

The area educators' 2016 recommendation is bolstered by the independent findings of a number of nationally-renowned medical and public health organizations, all of which support a middle school and high school starting time of 8:30 a.m. or later.

Some advocacy groups advancing that stance include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Medical Association, and the National Institutes of Health.

The medical community, citing a growing volume of peer-reviewed research studies, has warned the vast majority of teenagers - perhaps as many as 87 percent of them, according to the CDC - are not coming close to getting eight hours of sleep.

Exacerbating the problem, according to medical researchers, is the still unexplained phenomenon that hits children at puberty, when their sleep cycles are delayed by two hours. The end result, according to the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics, is that adolescents are biologically programmed to fall asleep later than their younger peers.

"Research has shown that students who get more sleep have higher academic performance, are less likely to use drugs, have less instances of depression and self-harming behavior, and get in fewer car accidents," concluded a Winchester School Start Time Study group, which summarized some of those medical findings in a report circulated around town last month.

However, in spite of that overwhelming evidence, implementing the change has proven quite difficult, as the adjustment not only has wreaks havoc with parents' work routines, but has systematic impacts on after-school athletics, after-school extracurriculars, and arrangements for afternoon child care.

The Middlesex League Superintendents, anticipating an outcry from athletic team and extra-curricular activity advocates, had hoped to minimize those particular effects by implementing the change regionally.

"The Middlesex League is moving their high school start times. In talking to the administration, they've looked into [limiting impacts to extra-curricular activities]. So these things can be worked out," noted Woburn School Committee Dr. John Wells, broaching the issue earlier this month as the city makes preparations to tackle the issue.

In another major wrinkle, there are huge financial implications associated with altering communities' busing contracts with school transportation providers. To control that potential budget busters, communities are exploring districtwide schedule changes, in which elementary and middle school starting times are also altered.

During the public hearing in Stoneham earlier this month, that particular aspect of the plan was a major concern for parents, particularly for those rearing more than one child.

One local mother, who described her younger child's sleep as already disrupted by the existing schedule, insisted school officials weren't taking into account the impacts on infants and toddlers, while other residents worried about arrangements with after-school providers.

“A 30 minute jump at the elementary school seems a lot,” said one parent. “Any working parent is trying to spring their kids from the after school program as early as possible…My work schedule won’t change; my child is going to be there an extra half hour.”

In Burlington, one of the few communities to approve a districtwide schedule change, Schools' Superintendent Dr. Eric Conti estimated it would cost $58,000 for each bus being added as a result of only adjusting high school starting times.

Like many of its neighbors, Burlington utilizes a tiered-transpiration model, where districts take advantage of staggered starting times for varying school-levels and have buses making multiple runs each morning.

To avoid those cost escalations, Burlington, per a School Committee vote last November, is also altering class starting times for elementary and middle school pupils.

In Winchester, where a School Start Times Committee recommended all middle school and high school pupils begin school 45 minutes later each day at 8:30 a.m., local officials estimated a single-run busing system - in which start times would be the same for students everywhere - would escalate transportation expenses by $500,000 a year.

"Our bus company has assured us that they will be able to accommodate a later start time at the middle/high schools with no additional cost, and concurrent earlier start time for elementary schools," the study group noted in a report to residents. "The start times need to be offset by a minimum of 30 minutes to ensure on-time arrival for all buses and the use of the two-tier bus schedule that we currently use."

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