2016-02-18 / Front Page

Case made for later start time

By Michael Kelley and Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writers

SCARBOROUGH – Over the last year many area school districts have been looking into starting later in an effort to ensure students, especially adolescents, are getting enough sleep to be productive in the classroom and healthier in life. School districts will have to work together, however, to make that change.

Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard said the private high school in Saco, which educates the students of Arundel, Dayton and Saco, is interested in delaying the start time, but there are a lot of moving parts that require the decision to be made at a regional level, including aligning with other schools, such as the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology where some Thornton Academy students go for additional classes.

“There is a sense that it would be wonderful if we could do this in collaboration,” Menard said. “If they do move forward, we would then have to look at how that would impact our school, what impact that would have on other communities because all those communities transport their students to Thornton Academy.”

Menard said there is support for the change, but the challenges are in the logistics. If Biddeford High School and the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology were to change their start times to 8:30 a.m., Menard said the move would impact all the communities that send students to the technology center. In addition to the Arundel, Saco and Dayton school districts, and Regional School Unit 23 in Old Orchard Beach, Regional School Unit 21, which includes Kennebunk High School, also sends students to the Center of Technology.

“Whatever the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology does will affect us, it will affect Kennebunk High School, Old Orchard Beach. It will really impact decisions,” Menard said. “It’s one of the factors that’s going to really shape what happens. We want to make sure it works, there are a lot of moving parts.

“We’re going to see where things will settle and work collaboratively with those communities.”

While several school districts in York County tackle the issue, schools in Cumberland County, including Scarborough, are also examining whether a change could make sense there as well.

“This is nothing new. It’s been around. We are kind of late to the game. It’s slow to catch on in New England,” Scarborough Board of Education Vice Chairman Kelly Murphy said at a meeting on the subject last week at Scarborough High School. “The school board took the opportunity to take a look this year after seeing Biddeford and Saco move along in the process, to see if we should do something too.”

Although there have been a few meetings about pushing school start times back for older students, there are no concrete plans to do so in Scarborough, at least not yet.

“There is nothing set in stone in Scarborough yet. I don’t want anyone to get nervous about potentialities yet,” said Murphy, who is chairing a committee to look into making the change.

The change locally is being advocated for by local chapters of Start School Later, a nationwide organization that, like its name implies, advocates for later start times for middle and high school students.

“Our mission is to really educate and present information and research to help communities grapple with (pushing back school start times for older students),” said Tracey Collins, a Saco parent who is the leader of the Southern Maine chapter of Start School Later.

Chapters have also started in Saco, Scarborough and South Portland.

Dr. Peter Amann, a family doctor in Scarborough for more than 13 years, said “there is a lot of evidence” suggesting children who are getting the recommended amount of sleep are more likely to do better in school, less likely to be injured and be overall healthier in life.

“A good night’s sleep is good for your academic performance, but your overall health as well,” he told a group of parents at Scarborough High School last week.

Chronic lack of sleep, Amann said, can lead to diabetes, depression, high-risk behavior, poor academic performance and suicidal thoughts.

Amann, who noted he is not a sleep expert, said sleep studies show teenagers are wired to stay up later and sleep later. School start times, however, interrupt that cycle. Teenagers, he said release melatonin – a hormone released during sleep – from about 10:30 p.m. to 9 a.m., well into the school day.

“What we are doing is shrinking the kids’ natural sleep time. Forcing them to go to bed early and get up early is counterproductive,” said Amann, who has four children in Scarborough schools.

There are other factors beside school start time that impact teen sleeping patterns, including academic and sports demands, work and social life, dependence on technology and caffeine intake.

Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics said because of the sleep cycles of students – teenagers especially – 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.

In 1997, the Minneapolis school district delayed start times in its seven high schools from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. and found even years later students got more sleep, had better attendance and attention levels and were less apt to be tardy or drop out.

The benefit of later start times has been seen in Maine as well.

Old Orchard Beach High School moved to a start time of 8 a.m. this year; last year, the start time was 7:25 a.m. The school is considering starting school at 8:30 a.m. for next year, pending an upcoming decision by the Biddeford School Committee to do the same.

Old Orchard Beach High School Principal John Suttie said that because there are Old Orchard Beach students who attend the Center of Technology in Biddeford, he is “very interested in aligning with (Biddeford).”

The later 8 a.m. start time, Suttie said, has already benefited the schools because students are more alert, and students who need interventions or extra help with their learning have the option of arriving earlier in the morning, as well as after school.

“It’s been a very good thing for our kids to have that extra time in the morning to gather themselves,” Suttie said. “Those students that still like to work in the morning will come in early to work with teachers. They got extra time for interventions. The building’s still pretty active in the mornings.

“The other piece is, if you walk into a classroom now at 8, the kids are a lot more alert.”

Suttie said the scientific research that supports later start times resulting in higher academic achievement is “overwhelming.”

“There’s no questioning the science of a teenager’s sleep cycle,” Suttie said. “It’s very clear that they perform at a much higher level, they’re more alert, more productive at a later start time. They need more sleep and need more sleep later into the morning than adults and children.

Attendance, Suttie said, is “much improved” and the school is realizing fewer incidences of tardiness.

Mike Flaherty, principal of Loranger Middle School, which has the same start time as Old Orchard Beach High School, said the middle school’s day would likely also begin at 8:30 a.m. if the high school start time is changed. The only challenge the change would present, said Flaherty, is that the district would have to change the start time for its elementary school, Jameson School, which currently starts at 8:30 a.m.

Transportation could not be provided for all the district’s students at the same time, he said. To accommodate the school buses, Flaherty said Jameson School’s start time would have to be 8 a.m. instead of 8:30 a.m.

“The feedback I’ve heard is that this could cause problems for families who need the older students for babysitting,” noting that elementary school children would be arriving home earlier than their older siblings.

Flaherty said delaying the start time “seems like the best decision” for academic reasons.

“The only worry I have is going to be on the family end, not the school end,” he said.

The school leaders in Maine looking to push back school start time are not alone. In August 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in which it was found that more than 80 percent of high schools and middle schools in the country start before 8:30 a.m. and two-thirds of high school students are not getting the recommended amount of sleep.

In Maine the average time to start middle and high school in 7:53 a.m. Scarborough Middle School begins at 7:45 a.m. and Scarborough High School begins at 7:35 a.m.

The current start time at Biddeford Middle School is 7:45 a.m., and at Biddeford High School and the Center of Technology, 7:45 a.m. Saco Middle School begins its school day at 7:15 a.m. and Thornton Academy begins its school day at 7:45 a.m. Saco elementary students start at 8:15 a.m. In Biddeford, John F. Kennedy Memorial School starts at 8:20 a.m., Biddeford Primary School at 8:10 a.m. and Biddeford Intermediate School, 8:15 a.m.; all three schools would start at 7:50 a.m. under the new proposal.

Collins said there is a proposal on the table in Saco to have kindergarten and first and second grades start at 8 a.m., with middle and high school students start at 8:30 a.m. There would be no change for older elementary school students.

Amann said later start times won’t necessarily mean later bed times.

“The question is if school starts later won’t kids just stay up later? Amann said. “The answer is no. Kids will probably go to bed at the same time no matter what time school is, but if school is later, they’ll just get more sleep.”

In an effort to make sure members of the public have the most up to date information and research on sleep behavior and school start time, Scarborough Public Library Director Nancy Crowell has offered to keep a binder of studies at the library.

The biggest challenges in making the change, Collins said, is getting buy-in from parents, school officials and administrators. Murphy said the change in superintendents in Scarborough will have no impact on the push for a change in school start times because the board, which supports the look into school start times, ultimately will hire the next superintendent.

A change in Scarborough could come as soon as this fall. Murphy said she expects the board of education to have a decision made on start times by April.

Murphy said she would like to see a change happen sooner rather than later because it is “very clear it is in the best interest of our older students.”

“I think there is irrefutable evidence. Every day we are not doing it, I feel we are actively hurting the middle school and high school kids in town,” she said.

Before a change can happen, Scarborough and other school districts looking to push back school start time, have to figure out how to mitigate impacts to student, teacher and parent schedules, especially with after-school care, after-school sports and extra curricular schedules and bus transportation.

“The biggest thing is if you are going to switch school start times, you really need to give people a lot of notice,” Collins said.

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