2018-02-02 / Front Page

School start time debated

By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

A group of more than 640 Scarborough residents have signed a petition to encourage the board of education to reevaluate its decision to change the start times at the town’s six schools. Unless reconsidered, the start times next year will be 8:50 a.m. at the high school, 9 a.m. at the middle school and 8 a.m. for elementary school students. (Michael Kelley photo) A group of more than 640 Scarborough residents have signed a petition to encourage the board of education to reevaluate its decision to change the start times at the town’s six schools. Unless reconsidered, the start times next year will be 8:50 a.m. at the high school, 9 a.m. at the middle school and 8 a.m. for elementary school students. (Michael Kelley photo) The start times at Scarborough’s six schools are set to change next year to allow adolescents to get more sleep at night, and while members of the public understand the rational, many are urging the Scarborough Board of Education and Superintendent Julie Kukenberger to rethink their decision to change the start times through a petition on Change.org.

As it stands now, school at Scarborough High School for the 2018- 2019 school year would begin at 8:50 a.m. and run through 3:15 p.m. The school day at the middle school would shift to 9 a.m. to 3:25 p.m. Delaying the start time at those schools by 75 minutes will mean the K-5 schools (Blue Point, Eight Corners and Pleasant Hill primary schools and Wentworth School) would operate from 8 a.m. to 2:25 p.m.

“Many of the promises made by the school board have been broken, and major questions remain unanswered,” the group said on their Change.org page, which as of Jan. 31 has signatures from more than 640 Scarborough residents. “Because of this, it is imperative this decision be re-evaluated. While we respect the board’s intention of striving to secure ideal sleep cycles needs for all students, this change is so extreme that unintended problems are being created for all age groups. We respectfully ask the board of education reopen the discussion and revisit the compromise solution.”

The petition argues the students who need the most sleep (elementary school students) will get less sleep than they do now; bus routes will begin at 7 a.m. and last close to an hour for elementary students; children of working parents will spend more time away from home in after-school care; athletic teams may be merged to allow students to still play and athletes may need to be released early to get to games on time.

Neighboring school districts, the petition states, “are using Scarborough as an example of what not to do.”

Board of Education Chairman Donna Beeley said there are “no plans in the works for a change.”

“We feel strongly this is in the right thing to do for the kids. When I go back and look at the data and the research, it reinforces my thinking that this is the right thing to do,” Beeley said.

She recognizes the change may be inconvenient for some residents, but school staff is working hard to address concerns parents may have.

Beeley said eight other school districts in the area have already made the change and two others – Gorham and Kennebunk – are discussing making the change.

The board of education’s decision to change the start time came in April 2017 after months of research and public discourse on the subject. The American Academy of Pediatrics said because of the sleep cycles of students, middle schools and high schools should not start before 8:30 a.m. The American Sleep Association thinks the start time should be closer to 9 a.m.

After hearing from parents, students and staff at their board meetings, members decided to make the change, but wait a year – until the 2018-2019 school year – to implement it to give school officials and community services staff time to look into the impact the change would have on athletics, busing and before/after-school care, and educate parents and community members about the change.

Jennifer Cleary, who has sons in 10th and 11th grade at Scarborough High School, is one of those parents who has signed the petition.

“My main concern is for my children. They don’t love it. As indicated by the student representatives (last spring) the student population at the school doesn’t want to do the change. For my kids it would impact their ability to get to work on time. In addition to that, the number of hours they can work is limited, so cutting an hour in the afternoon is huge. Flexible jobs are hard to come by with kids,” Cleary said.

Cleary wrote to the Leader while she opposes the change, she is a supporter of the school department and she and her family “volunteer in many ways and have always done what we can to support the budget each year.”

How the change will impact bus transportation is a big concern for Cleary, who worked as a Scarborough bus driver for three years and for several years worked as the high school’s information technology coordinator and now substitute teaches at the high school.

“I have a lot of issue with the way bus routes are going to be done. I don’t think it will work,” Cleary said, adding there is not enough time for buses to get students to the primary schools and Wentworth for 8 a.m. and then turn around and less than 60 minutes later get the middle school and high school students to their respective schools on time.

She said “flipping the buses” isn’t far to elementary school students, many who would have to be at their bus stop by 7 a.m. and then have to go through a full school day and in many cases go to afterschool care before their parents can pick them up.

“It’s just a really long day for those little kids and does push into family time,” she said.

Jason McGovern, who has a kindergartner at Eight Corners Primary School and a third-grader at Wentworth School, said based on his calculation, in some cases a quarter of the time students spent not in the classroom or sleeping, will be spent on the bus.

“This is likely to profoundly impact how much time I can spend as a parent with my children, especially my younger daughter, who is a kindergartener,” said McGovern, who works from home. “What the school system needs to do and what they haven’t done is make sure they have considered all the data and make sure it is a justifiable need that is being served.”

Cleary said would support finding a way to get all students to school around 8:30 a.m., but cannot support changing start times “to the extreme Scarborough is.”

“I’d just like the superintendent and board to listen to the public. It’s frustrating because a lot of feedback I’ve heard is people don’t feel they are being listened to,” Cleary said.

McGovern said the school board may be wise to delay implementation even more.

“In my opinion the first thing the school board needs to do is delay implementation of anything for two to three years,” McGovern said.

McGovern said doing so would allow Scarborough to learn from the “growing pains” other school district that have made the change are going through.

“It makes sense for Scarborough, as a community, to delay implementation in order to learn from what has worked for other school districts and what hasn’t,” he said.

McGovern said although he understands why the board has made the decision it has, the source of the frustration with many parents is board members is “trying to find a solution to a problem that may not exist.”

He said according to the March 2017 staff “don’t think this will pay off as much as the studies suggest.” According to the survey, which was filled out by 381 staff members – 61 percent of whom work at the middle or high school – less than 40 percent indicate the change in start times at the two schools would improve student mood, focus/participation, ability to get to school on time, student physical or emotional health, absenteeism, ability to complete homework on time or ability to get the recommended hours of sleep.

The majority of the 1,127 students who filled out the survey, indicate the changed start time would have a positive impact on their ability to perform well on tests, focus and participate in class and get the recommended amount of sleep. Roughly 40 percent of 1,545 parents also reported it would be more difficult to get their middle school or high school student to school.

The new start times, according to the survey, will increase the bus ridership for high school and middle school students and after-school care for elementary students. The vast majority of middle school parents (70 percent) and high school parents (76 percent) indicate the change in start times would impact their child’s ability to participate in after-school and athletics.

Parents also felt the change would improve their children’s ability to get the recommended amount of sleep and improve their children’s emotional health.

Only 11 percent of elementary school parents felt the earlier start time at K-5 schools would help students get the amount of sleep that is recommended, a concern of McGovern’s.

“There really isn’t a lot of data saying it is OK to have younger kids go to school earlier,” he said. “With the new solution the board has presented, it is very hard for the younger kids to get the sleep they need.”

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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