WILMINGTON — The School Committee received and discussed the results of the School Start Time Committee’s survey during their meeting last Wednesday night. Representatives from the new Parent/Guardian Advocates for Wilmington Schools group detailed their work to increase communication and engagement between parents and the school district leaders.
They explained how the Start Time Committee began their work with more than 14 scenarios for changing start times at all Wilmington schools and since whittled these down to three for parent testing. The survey questions sought family priorities, reactions, and perceived impact on adolescent sleep, childcare, and afterschool activities.
They received 1,047 participants, which appeared to be equally representative of both sides of town, although they noted that there may have been an overrepresentation of CARES parents.
Scenario 1 proposed moving all school start times as they are back by 20 minutes. Scenario 2 would have intermediate schools start at 7:30 a.m. and the Shawsheen and Woburn Street schools starting last. With scenario three, elementary school would begin at 7:30 a.m. and high school would start at 8:40 a.m.
The results showed that 40 percent of parents preferred scenario 1, and less than 30 percent favored the other two scenarios. While there were reasons provided in comments for the scenario 1 preference like fairness, minimizing disruptions, and concern for childcare, there were still significant issues with this scenario as it changed Shawsheen and West schools start times to 9:15 a.m.
The issues with scenario 2 seemed to be limiting high school afterschool activities and having young children waiting for the bus early in the morning. Scenario 3 also would have students waiting at the bus stop early and an impact on CARES. The earliest acceptable start time identified by parents was collectively 8 a.m.
With scenario 1 heavily impacting the Shawsheen and West students, PAWS recommended some ways to alleviate these burdens including study hall or CARES accommodations at these schools. They also asked for as much notice in advance as possible for parents before the change goes into effect.
Some other recommendations included trying to increase funding for buses and continued exploration of moving start times closer to 8 a.m.
Superintendent Dr. Glenn Brand thanked PAWS for their work with the survey and their strategic-level approach to segment and analyze the data in a nuanced way. He also shared the results of a staff survey for the scenarios, which were similar, showing 43 percent preferring scenario 1. He spoke to potential reasons including ease of adjustment and the limited set of parameters for the scenarios.
He assured the committee that the transportation department would be ready to make changes in time for next year.
While the committee didn’t vote that night, they did discuss their thoughts about the survey results and scenarios themselves.
Stephen Turner asked whether it would be possible for study hall time at the West and Shawsheen before school, which Brand didn’t say would be out of the question. Turner also mentioned that they seemed to be not addressing the middle school start time as much as he would’ve liked and asked about opportunities for middle school after-school activities.
Brand replied that there was a desire to provide more extracurricular opportunities for students at the middle school.
M. J. Byrnes commented that she wasn’t sure if scenario 1 was good enough to make the change, looking at added stress on families and the impact on CARES and West and Shawsheen families.
“I’m concerned that there wasn’t a strong majority,” she said.
While she agreed with the research and the need to change school start times, she could see the need to wait until next year to decide.
Jay Samaha also shared concerns about CARES and working families in scenario 1.
“We want to have a positive impact on high school and middle school kids,” he said. “We can’t do that without impacting elementary school kids.”
He pointed out that the decision on May 25 wouldn’t be giving parents much time for CARES enrollment which would start on June 1. He wondered if Brand would reach out to CARES program directors to see if they could support the likely increase in demand.
Chair Dr. Jenn Bryson wanted to see data on bus ridership in case there were other ways to optimize the bus routes. She also spoke to the need for more middle school afterschool activities and changing that start time to later.
Melissa Plowman agreed that it would be helpful to have more info on ridership and additional time for CARES to change their program and for parents to decide whether they’d choose CARES.
David Ragsdale mentioned he knew that there wouldn’t be a winning scenario, but it was still disheartening to see that all the scenarios have downsides.
“What we have now is the same thing,” he reminded the audience.
If agreeing to wait a year, he said he would want to see ridership numbers and possible financial resources to the transportation budget. He later said that the scenarios felt like a spatial puzzle and simply moving all start times back by 20 minutes seemed like a unsatisfactory answer.
The committee welcomed any other feedback from PAWS before they moved on from this discussion. A decision on the changing of school start times is expected at their next meeting on May 25.