For sleepy students, more time to recharge

But plan to shift school start times in Duxbury catches some off guard

By Franci Richardson Ellement
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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Sophie Hearne hoofs it to school by 7:30 every morning with her much-needed thermos of coffee, dreading the days when she has AP history or math, where she really needs to concentrate.

In class "I think, 'Oh maybe if this was in the middle of the day, I would be able to catch every word my teacher is saying now,' " said Hearne, president of the junior class at Sharon High School, who sometimes skips first period with her parents' blessing if she hasn't gotten enough sleep for days at a time.

"Math is really hard to have really early," said Hearne. "I can hardly keep my eyes open."

Some scientific reports say that adolescents like Hearne, 17, cannot go to sleep early enough to feel rested and concentrate on their studies if they have to wake up so early for a traditional high school start time.

The result, a national trend to start school later, has come to Sharon and Duxbury. Though advocates stress the educational benefits, their arguments are running up against parents' practical concerns about scheduling child care and after-school activities.

Administrators in the two towns hope to replicate the results from Hingham, where the high school shifted its start time six years ago to 8 from 7:20 a.m. Since then, academic performance and attendance have improved and behavioral problems have decreased, according to Superintendent Paula Girouard-McCann.

From the research Girouard-McCann has read, she would support starting high school at noon if it could accommodate after-school activities and sports programs. But it can't, she acknowledged.

"You can tell a teenager to go to bed, but they're not tired," Girouard-McCann said. "They won't sleep."

In Sharon, the main proposal under consideration would move the high school starting time to 8:15 a.m. from 7:30, with perhaps a delay of up to 20 minutes in the elementary schools. Officials say this would not increase the district's costs and that they hope to have community backing for the new hours by the fall.

There are some hurdles to clear, however. According to School Committee vice chairman Mitch Blaustein, parents at recent meetings have raised concerns over the change affecting athletic schedules, as well as the ability of some high schoolers to get home in time to baby-sit their younger siblings.

"The best way to do it would be to have schools start a little later every year to get to what we're after," said Blaustein, who acknowledged that the change would be difficult for parents.

The chairwoman of Sharon's School Committee, Alison Rutley, also sees the need to educate parents. Rutley said she is "wholeheartedly" for the change based on the research she has read.

"I think there is data out there and studies done that high school kids who get up later are more alert, pay attention better, aren't tired and as stressed," Rutley said.

In Duxbury, officials are dealing with the fallout from the decision this month to move the start time at both the middle and high schools to 8:15 from 7:30, effective next fall.

While parents generally support the time shift for high schoolers, some see drawbacks for the third-, fourth-, and fifth- graders at the Alden School.

Those 859 students would have to begin their day at 7:30 instead of the current 8:25 because the district has to use the same number of contracted buses in order to avoid extra costs. If all of the students were to start at the same time, Duxbury's busing costs would be more than $1 million, which would be prohibitive, said Superintendent Susan Skeiber.

Skeiber, who has taught primary education for much of her 32-year career, said that an earlier start time for younger students would be beneficial because they get tired earlier in the day.

Still, some parents are angry about the change. Selden Tearse sees the shift as a hidden tax on working parents because younger students will be home before the middle and high schoolers and will require child care.

"No matter how you cut it, it's going to cost money, and this is not a time when people can afford an extra $2,000," said Tearse, a 45-year-old mother of a second- and a fifth-grader.

"I think School Committee members are trying to do a positive thing, but from the beginning you're hosing the Alden School population - they're throwing them under the bus to do this."

Other parents can't stand the idea of their young children getting up at 6 a.m. and waiting for the bus in the dark. And Mark Kelly is appalled by the way school officials, though well-meaning, pushed the proposal through without really hearing the concerns of parents.

"Nobody is against the high schoolers getting extra time, but no one one feels that their voice has been heard," said Kelly, parent of a fourth-grade Alden student.

Kelly said he would feel better if administrators worked out an arrangement in which all students could be accommodated without such a drastic change in schedule for younger children.

Skeiber said she is trying to accommodate worried parents, arranging after-school programs for those without child care and making sure that younger students can ride home on the buses with their middle- or high school sibling or a baby-sitter.

The Duxbury School Committee has agreed to take up the issue again at its meeting Wednesday, but Skeiber said that while she's not opposed to discussing alternatives, she doesn't expect a change in the new start times approved at the meeting.

Duxbury School Committee member Karen Wong, the mother of an Alden student and two children at the high school, said she empathizes with the complaints of parents, but believes that the later start time for high schoolers is in the best interest of their education and health.

"In a perfect world, it would be great if we could start everyone at 8:15 a.m., but because of the financial burden of adding more buses, it was not feasible," Wong said.

If Wong could do one thing differently, she would make more of an effort to get the community on board.

"I categorically deny that we did this in a vacuum, but what I will say is that I did not expect this to get the reaction it did," said Wong. "If I could go back in time, I wish that we had been out there more, talking about it, having more community information sessions."

In Sharon, where the high school start time proposal has little effect on other schools, Rutley said she is determined not to repeat Duxbury's mistake.

"You're not going to please everyone, but if you educate everyone and people feel that they have all the information, you can make tough decisions," she said.

"If you get the [public] on board, you can basically do anything."

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