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Shrewsbury poll shows parents favor later school start

But scheduling seen as problem

SHREWSBURY - Walking around Shrewsbury High School about 7:30 most mornings, principal Dan Gutekanst has noticed something.

Though it's teeming with more than 1,700 teenagers, ``The place is not exactly buzzing and hopping,'' said Gutekanst.

That's probably because many of the students are not fully awake. Yet if you asked them whether they would have preferred to sleep an hour later, about half of them might say no - at least according to results of a survey of students. The students opposed to starting later expressed concerns about after-school activities like sports, jobs, and even homework.

But their parents would like to see them get the extra sleep. According to a new survey, 79 percent of high school parents who responded said they would support a later start time for the high school.

The survey was sponsored by the School Start Time Committee, which will decide by February whether to recommend a later start time for high school and possibly middle school students. The committee was formed in the spring after members of the high school student advisory council approached Gutekanst about the matter.

A total of 765 parents, teachers, and students completed the survey. Three-quarters said they had read about the relationship between sleep and student performance; 72 percent said they thought the committee's decision should be based on the educational impact a change would have on students; and 74 percent of all respondents thought the high school day should start later.

However, because a later high school start time could mean an earlier start time for elementary schools due to bus scheduling issues, there was opposition from parents of younger students. Fifty-nine percent of elementary school parents and 92 percent of middle school parents oppose an earlier starting time for their children.

The concern of middle school parents is well founded, according to Amy Wolfson, an associate professor of psychiatry at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, who spoke about research on adolescents and sleep at a forum last Thursday.

Noting that adolescence ranges from ages 10 to 17, she emphasized that the issues of sleep and getting up too early ``are not just for high school students; we're talking about middle school students, too.''

``What we know for the real world is that adolescents are not getting the sleep that they need,'' Wolfson said. ``We know that adolescents need 9.2 hours of sleep. That's clear.''

The consequences of not getting enough sleep include impaired performance, lower grades, increased tardiness and absenteeism, increased moodiness, and drowsy driving, Wolfson said.

Some parents - and even some students - who responded to the survey said they felt students simply needed to get to bed earlier.

``Why are we coddling our kids to the point of being ridiculous?'' one parent asked the committee in an e-mail. ``It's time for parents to tell their kids to put away the GameBoys, shut off the TVs and computer games.''

A parent at Thursday's forum noted that when students are working, their employers dictate what time they must be at work. ``At what point does the student learn certain discipline?'' the parent asked.

``The typical professional does not start work at 7:20 in the morning,'' responded Andrea Burns, a parent and member of the School Start Time Committee. Also, as adults, people can gravitate toward careers that work for them, whether they are early-morning people or night owls, she said.

Besides, Wolfson said that, for adolescents, getting enough sleep is not a simple matter of getting to bed earlier. While it may be cool to stay up late, that is not the entire story. Biologically, as children enter adolescence they are unable to fall asleep as early as they once did, Wolfson said.

``You should be thinking mathematically here,'' Wolfson told parents and educators at the forum. If a high school student went to bed at 10 p.m. - which may be on the early side - he would need to sleep until just after 7 a.m. to get the 9.2 hours of sleep he requires. Yet most high schools start around 7:30.

Wolfson said that ideally, she would recommend a 9 a.m. school start time for middle and high schools, but she realizes that is probably not possible. Yet even an additional 20 minutes of sleep makes a difference, and any change to a later start time is a step in the right direction, she said.

``If you're going to make a change, you may as well be bold about it,'' she said. ``If it's going to be 8:15, why not make it 8:30?''

The problem, said Gutekanst, is that if school starts later, it would have to end later, which would complicate scheduling scholastic and athletic matches with other schools - unless all districts made the switch.

This year, three separate bills were filed seeking to mandate later school starting times. One, cosponsored by several local state senators, would establish a pilot program to encourage ``post-8:30 a.m. starting times'' throughout the state. Another would study the effect of high school starting times on academic performance, and the third would prohibit any public school from opening before 9 a.m.

The joint Committee on Education, Arts and Humanities held a public hearing on the three bills last month and has until March to decide whether to pursue the matter.

But absent state mandates, Shrewsbury and a handful of other communities are tackling the issue themselves. Hingham this year changed its high school starting time from 7:20 a.m. to 8 a.m. In Duxbury, an advisory committee has recommended that middle and high school classes begin 30 minutes later beginning next fall, while a Needham committee has a recommended 8:05 a.m. starting times for its middle and high schools.

In many towns, issues surrounding buses - changing complicated schedules, funding additional buses, and the idea of putting kindergartners on a bus at 6:30 a.m. if they end up with the earlier start times - have been stumbling blocks. In Shrewsbury, the contract with the bus company expires at the end of the next school year, which may be a logical time to make a change.

Asked whether the recommendation in Shrewsbury will be based primarily on the educational impact, the community's desires, or the economics, Burns said, ``We would like to think the most important piece is going to be the needs of the student. Unfortunately, the reality is, we can't ignore the economics.''

Gutekanst, the cochairman of the School Start Time Committee, said he is not sure which direction the committee is headed in. ``I sense a feeling that we should adjust the high school-only start time. Whether or not we'll be able to do that in a fiscally prudent manner is probably the biggest question.''

The Shrewsbury committee will meet again on Dec. 6 and several times after that before making its recommendation to the School Committee in February.

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