2017-03-16 / Front Page

Principals: Later school starts positive

By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD/SACO – Saco Middle School and Biddeford High and Middle schools have seen positive results since a later start for schools was implemented at the beginning of this school year, the principals of the schools said.

Schools in Biddeford and Saco began at 7:30 a.m. before this year and now start one hour later, at 8:30 a.m. The new start was implemented at the beginning of the 2016- 2017 school year for both municipalities.

Tracey Collins, a Saco resident and parent of three who helped spearhead the implementation of later start times for Saco and Biddeford schools, said the idea stemmed partially from a survey offered to parents in the school district in spring 2016.

“We identified people’s concerns and found that the majority of parents were in favor of healthy hours,” she said.

Collins cited a 2015 Center for Disease and Control report as another factor for the change.

“In the words of (the report), ‘Among possible public health interventions for increasing sufficient sleep among adolescents, delaying school start times has the potential for the greatest population impact by changing the environmental context for students in entire school districts,’” she said.

Collins said since delayed start time was implemented, Saco Middle School, Thornton Academy and Biddeford schools have seen an increase in student attendance, which is about a 1 percent attendance increase; a 30 to 45 percent reduction in tardiness; 36 percent fewer student suspensions; 50 percent less visits to the school nurse by this time in the previous two years; and more than two thirds of students reporting nine hours of sleep per night that they had not gotten before. Students are reporting going to bed between 9:30 and 11 p.m. and waking up between 6 and 7 a.m.

Aaron Werner, a Scarborough resident and father of four, said Scarborough is considering implementing an 8:30 a.m. start time for its school, and he’s worried about the change.

“You’re treating the symptom, not the problem,” he said. “The symptom is kids are tired from school, not fully awake or alert. The problem is they’re not getting enough sleep. The question is, how do we get students more sleep? One (possibility) is let them sleep in longer. One is have them get to bed earlier. If you have them sleep in longer, it limits the amount of time they spend outside.”

Werner, who said he believes children would stay up longer if Scarborough implemented the change, cited seasonal affective disorder as a problem among teenagers in America, which in northern climates can cause depression and drive suicide rates. He said he believes the later start time would increase rates of the disorder, and that waking up early is not difficult but going to bed early is.

“A lack of sunlight will have all sorts of ramifications,” he said.

Collins said a common myth about sleep deprivation for American teens is that a later start time would encourage teens to stay up later. She said chronic sleep deprivation is a product of what time they are forced to wake up rather than what time they go to bed. She encouraged parents to set parental controls on devices and access to social media, and to be vigilant about digital device usage to prevent children from staying up too late, such as barring children from devices in their bedrooms after 10 p.m. Saco schools have placed security controls that shut off school devices automatically at this time, she said, because they will stay up too late with access to digital devices.

Kyle Keenan, principal of Biddeford Middle School, said responses to the delayed start time have been positive.

“The positive feedback I’ve received from students, parents and staff regarding our change to a later start time has been overwhelming,” Keenan said. “Parents have reported to me that their mornings at home have gone from a battle over getting their middle schooler out of bed, to peaceful mornings where they are actually able to eat breakfast with their child. Students have reported appreciating the extra sleep. Staff have reported morning classes have higher levels of student engagement in years past. Students appear more alert and focused.”

Jeremie Sirois, principal of Biddeford High School, said that although at first he was dubious about the later start time, he has since recognized it as beneficial for students.

“I . . . started conducting some block one observations (7:45 start) and realized that kids were not awake and our attendance was extremely poor. I also noticed that around 8:25 a.m. when I was observing, discussions started to become more interactive. It was really amazing to see. That’s when I was wholeheartedly on board because I truly believed it’s best for kids,” he said.

Sirois said many students have told him that they originally did not support the change but now are happy to see it in effect and are getting an extra hour of sleep, which has been beneficial for them. Parents have told him their children are going to bed at normal times and getting more sleep. Parents have also said they don’t need to pester their children to get out of bed.

Sirois and Keenan said the changes have resulted in a significant drop in tardiness. Brian Campbell, principal of Saco Middle School, also attested to a decrease.

“I’ve seen the biggest change with students being late to school,” Sirois said. “In previous years we would see on average between 40 to 60 if not more students tardy to school. In February we had 204 total tardies (which due to storms and such averaged out to about 20 per day during that month). So in short we have more students here on average and more students on time than in 2015-16.”

“We do have clear data that students are attending school more often and arriving to school on time with great frequency,” Keenan said. “Our average daily attendance is up by over 2 percentage points from this time last year. Our tardies to school are down significantly as well by almost 40 percent. Student attendance has a direct correlation with student achievement and so we are hopeful that our standardized testing scores will see gains when that testing is completed in the spring.”

Campbell said Saco Middle School students have improved academically since the change, adding that Saco Middle School has also seen fewer students who are tardy.

Keenan said Biddeford Middle School gave students a survey about their sleep patterns and will survey them again at the end of the school year. More than 75 percent of those respondents indicated they were getting more than eight hours of sleep per night, he said. Families he speaks with report that their child is taking advantage of the later start time, getting additional sleep and is well rested in the morning.

The middle school has very few families who have used its early drop off option, he said. Collins said she believes the early drop off option, which allows students to arrive to school earlier than the scheduled start, was implemented to accommodate the most transient students, or if a parent’s work schedule requires that they be dropped off earlier. Though not ideal for sleep, she said, superintendents Dominic Depatsy and Jeremy Ray of Saco and Biddeford, respectively, believed it’s important to have students in warm places and to ensure they are eating a healthy breakfast and waking up before their first class.

“I thought that was a very good decision,” Collins said.

Sirois and Keenan both noted a reduction in nurse’s visits this year and Keenan said data has shown there is a decrease in student discipline referrals, though whether this is attributed to later school start times is unclear.

At this time in the 2015-2016 school year, Biddeford High School had 390 more nurses visits than in 2016- 2017, Sirois said.

“I find that to be an interesting statistic,” Sirois said. “Does it have to do with later start times? I don’t know. But we’ve had the same nurse for three years and to see a change of 390 visits could be attributed to well-rested students.”

Collins said she has seen the effects on her daughter, a Saco Middle School student.

“My child had one of the earliest start times in the state, at 7:20 a.m.,” she said. “The buses rolled out of the transportation department at 6:05 a.m. In order for my teen to catch her 6:40 a.m. bus, she had to get up at 5:40 a.m. Even if she fell fully asleep at 10 p.m. she was only getting seven and a half hours, nearly two hours less sleep than recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease and Control. At that time she was 11 years old. Totally unacceptable.”

Sirois said after seeing the data and hearing positive feedback, he supports the change.

“From my perspective I’m thrilled with the change and see the benefits,” he said.

Register soon for college courses

Registration for courses at University College at Saco for courses in summer and fall will open later in March. Degree seeking students may register on March 13, slightly ahead of non-degree students, including high school aspirations, who will have access March 20. There will be three choices for summer session: session I is for seven weeks and runs from May 22 through July 7; session II runs from July 10 through Aug. 25; and one continuous session III runs from May 22 through Aug. 25. According to University College at Saco Director, Dan Philbrick, “The seven-week sessions allow students to condense course work into shorter periods of time while the full summer session spreads the course work over the summer.” Philbrick said although the summer schedule is smaller than that for fall and spring, “There are still over 600 courses available in summer from all seven campuses of the University of Maine System when you combine all teaching modalities of face-to-face, interactive television, video conference and online instruction.” For more information on the summer and fall schedules, visit the website at learn.maine.edu/saco.

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