By Liz Nolan, Contributing Writer
Northborough/Southborough – The feasibility of implementing a later start time for middle and high school has been the topic of discussion in Northborough-Southborough since 2014. Start School Later-MA (SSL-MA) Chapter Leader Mary Hamaker and the Start School Later Northborough-Southborough, MA Chapter Leader Michelle Brownlee are optimistic that the discussion will continue this year and changes be made for the 2018-2019 academic year.
Start School Later Inc. was founded in 2011 in Maryland and currently has 94 chapters in 26 states and Washington, D.C. The Massachusetts chapter started in 2014 and is one of 15 Massachusetts chapters.
The mission of the group is to increase public awareness about the relationship between sleep and school hours and to ensure school start times are compatible with health, safety and education.
The national research highlighted on the SSL national website shows that the adolescent’s brain needs eight-and-a-half to nine-and-a-quarter hours of sleep, but two-thirds of high schoolers get less than seven hours. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association all recommend that middle and high schools start class no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow students to get healthy sleep. Earlier start times are out of sync with teen biological clocks. In addition, the research also links sleep deprivation with physical, psychological and education problems.
Other key facts listed on the SSL website include:
- Shifts in the sleep-wake cycle at puberty mean that most adolescents get their best sleep between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m.;
- Insufficient sleep in teens is associated with obesity, migraines and immune system disruption and with health risk behaviors including smoking, drinking, stimulant abuse, physical fighting, physical inactivity, depression and suicidal tendencies; and
- When schools have delayed the start of the school day, communities have seen reduced tardiness, sleeping in class, and car crash rates, as well as improved attendance, graduation rates, and standardized test scores.
Many parents of teenagers know the struggle well. Students at Algonquin Regional High School (ARHS) currently start their day at 7:20 a.m. and the first bus stop is as early as 6:30 a.m., which is in the dark during the winter months.
“This is a temporary biological shift that we need to address for health and safety reasons,” said Hamaker. “It’s not that kids are lazy; kids’ bodies change at puberty and we need to deal with it.”
One research point that caught Brownlee’s attention was that tired drivers are as dangerous as drunk drivers, especially when those drivers are inexperienced.
Hamaker’s involvement with Start School Later began as she witnessed how her own son struggled to get to school. She realized that he was not achieving the grades he was capable of achieving and how pre-existing medical conditions became worse due to sleep deprivation.
She has been instrumental in initiating the conversation with the Northborough-Southborough community along with Brownlee, as both feel that awareness of the group’s mission is important in order to obtain support for any future changes in school start time.
Over the past few years, presentations have been made to parent groups and at School Committee meetings, and a Facebook page has been created to keep the community informed of the research.
As part of the Northborough-Southborough School District’s ongoing speaker series, Director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital and Professor of Neurology at Harvard University Dr. Judith Owens spoke in November 2015. That presentation can be viewed www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpCcAA2T75o.
Superintendent Christine Johnson said that it’s difficult not to support the idea of a start time change when the research is presented, but it is not that simple to implement.
Some arguments against a time change are no longer valid arguments, such as athletic schedules. In December 2016, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) Sports Medical Committee issued a letter in support of later high school start times.
Transportation, however, remains a key issue in relation to cost as one bus costs $70,000. Johnson plans to meet with the current transportation company to discuss different start time models.
A second issue in regard to transportation is how traffic on the major bus routes will be affected with a later start time. This may lead to the need for a traffic study.
Brownlee agrees that there are lots of moving pieces and some of the solutions may not work as well.
“We need to justify why it’s worth spending money on it,” she said. “If we can’t get past the bus issue, it won’t happen.”
Hamaker said that a creation of a task force to study the transportation issue was approved by the Regional School Committee in June 2016, but that task force has not been formed yet. The effort lost momentum last year partly due to the retirement of ARHS Principal Tom Mead at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.
ARHS’s new principal Dr. Sara Pragluski Walsh will now have an important role in future discussions.
On May 30, a state-wide petition of 5,000 signatures was submitted to the governor and key legislators asking to pass legislation that sets minimum standards for school start time in line with the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Another element the district must consider is how school time changes may open teacher negotiations.
Some parents are concerned that if high school starts later that the elementary schools will start earlier. Hamaker said that SSL is in support of operating schools at times that are healthy and safe for all students.
“We do not support any child at the bus stop in the dark,” she said.
Brownlee said raising awareness about the issue and educating parents is key. She acknowledges that the issue of adolescent sleep patterns may not be on the radar of parents of younger kids, but they, too, should understand the science and research behind the health benefits of a later start time as it will eventually affect their kids.
“Change can be scary,” said Hamaker. “Fear drives so much. Don’t be afraid. Change will take care of itself. What we find in reality is that what we are fearful of never materializes.”
The number one goal that Hamaker wants people to remember is that of the academic success of all children.
Johnson is optimistic that they will find answers and acknowledged the need to renew the movement.
“We’re listening; we’re continuing to explore,” Johnson said. “It has to be done right with respect to the community and research, and be fiscally responsible.”
Anyone who would like to join the discussion can do so by viewing the local SSL chapter at www.startschoollater.net/ma—northborough-southborough.html. There is also an active Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/SSLNorthboroughSouthboroughMA/. The school district has many resources of information at https://sites.google.com/a/nsboroschools.net/algonquin_start_time_resources. The national SSL website is www.startschoollater.net/wake-up-calls-fast-facts.html.