For the last three years, the Board of Education has been exploring the feasibility of shifting our school start times to be better aligned with the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control, the American Psychological Association, the National PTA, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many others. All of these organizations support secondary school start times of 8:30 AM or later as we know the body’s natural circadian rhythms shift during adolescence, making it very difficult for teens to fall asleep before 10:30 or 11:00 PM. Even those who practice good sleep hygiene may simply not be sleepy before this time. With our current start time of 7:30 AM, many students are not able to get the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night.
In the 20 years since the initial recommendation was made, numerous scientific studies have been conducted. These demonstrate the many benefits of a later start, including improved school attendance, fewer discipline referrals, and, in some cases, improved grades for students whose schools have made this shift. Despite our steadfast belief that such a change would benefit students, the logistics involved in any change to an organization our size are significant. We have been examining the implications for transportation, athletics, child care, our BOCES partnerships, and more to determine whether a change is possible. We have been thorough in our analysis of all of these factors and have tried to look at the options from all angles. At the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, February 26th, we examined three possible options if the Board were to recommend a change in the school start times for the 2019-20 school year. The three proposals were also shared with parents and staff via the Superintendent’s TGIF e-newsletter, and a press release to local media.
The District will host two public forums on the issue on March 28th and April 8th. The forums will provide an opportunity for parents and community members to review the options, ask questions, and provide feedback for the Board’s consideration. Any decision to change the start times the next school year would be made in early May.
Q: Why is the district looking to make a change in the time the school day starts?
A: The district has been investigating this issue for the last four years, at the request of the Board of Education. A number of different agencies and associations recommend later secondary school scheduling. These include the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, the American Sleep Association, the American Psychological Association, the Society of Pediatric Nurses, the National Association of School Nurses, the National PTA, the American Thoracic Society, the American Medical Association, the Education Commission of the States, the National Education Association, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The reason for the recommendation is based on science. We know that adolescents’ circadian rhythms make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11:00 P.M., even if they go to bed earlier. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teenagers get 8-9 hours of sleep a night. With our current start times, it is difficult for students to get the recommended amount of sleep.
Q: Have other districts who have made this change seen any positive outcomes as a result?
A: There is a large and growing body of scholarly research that demonstrates many positive outcomes when adolescents get more sleep. We have created a depository for articles on our district website at www.potsdam.k12.ny.us for those who are interested in learning more. Most schools have seen significant improvement in student attendance, reductions in tardiness to school and discipline referrals, and some report seeing academic achievement improve. Studies have also shown a reduction in automobile accidents and depression in students who get more sleep, or sleep of an improved quality.
Q: If a change is made, will our district examine local data to see if our students experience similar positive outcomes?
A: The district will definitely monitor and evaluate student outcomes after any change is made. We have partnered with two researchers from St. Lawrence University who conducted a study when the Glens Falls School District changed their school schedule several years ago. These researchers are very interested in doing a similar study in our district, and would also be interested in including middle school students, which was not part of the study they conducted in Glens Falls. Although they are currently not able to take on a formal research project, they may be able to help us interpret data comparing the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, including attendance, tardiness, and discipline referrals.
Q: Wouldn’t kids fall asleep sooner if they weren’t staying up on their cell phones or other electronic devices?
A: It is true that students would get more sleep, and that sleep would be of a higher quality if they practiced better sleep hygiene by adhering to a regular bedtime and removing the presence of television, computers, and mobile phones from their bedrooms. However, even teens who power down sooner have difficulty falling asleep before 11:00 P.M.
Q: Are we really preparing high school students for the real world if we make a change that allows them to sleep in later?
A: Science tells us that the shift in the Circadian rhythms were are hoping to address only lasts until the early 20’s. After that time, most adults feel sleepy earlier in the evening and have less difficulty waking naturally early in the morning. Our students who are heading to college will likely have some control over their class schedules; many students traditionally strive to select classes that start later in the morning. In addition, we know the economy is shifting. By some estimates, 40% of our current high school students will be self-employed and will, thus, have some flexibility in their workday, which means they may start their day later in the “real world.”
Q: Why can’t the district move to a single bus run like Canton? That way, all schools could start at 8:00 A.M.
A: The district engaged in an extensive transportation study during the 2017-18 school year to look at the feasibility of moving to a single bus run. While it would be possible to make this change, the financial implications are significant. A change to a single bus run would cost the district approximately $200,000 a year. We would have to purchase six additional school buses to transport all students in one run. We currently buy three new buses every year to adhere to the recommended replacement schedule. Buying nine buses in a single year would be very challenging for our district.
We also have found it increasingly difficult in recent years to fill bus driver vacancies, so it might be difficult to hire six more bus drivers. Adding six buses to the fleet would stretch our bus mechanics, and we do not have a facility large enough to house any additional buses. Finally, we would see a substantial reduction in our transportation aid, which is based on the number of “allowable miles” are buses travel. Allowable miles include trips to and from school and transporting students for education field trips only. Athletic trips are not included. By cutting our “allowable miles” in half, we would see a resulting shift in the ratio between allowable and non-allowable miles, resulting in a reduction in reimbursed funds.
In addition to the financial implications, we would face a substantial hurdle in terms of our labor agreement with the transportation staff. The current contract requires our bus drivers to be guaranteed six hours a day of work for a 30-hour work week. Drivers are paid an extra driving rate for 30-40 hours in a week, and an overtime rate for any driving beyond 40 hours. With a single bus run, our drivers would only be working three hours a day. Essentially, we would have to agree to pay our drivers the same salary for half the amount of work, and even then our drivers would probably never get to the overtime rate.
Q: Won’t a later start have a negative impact on interscholastic athletics?
A: There are 18 school districts in our BOCES region, and 13 of them currently have a schedule with secondary schools starting around 8:00 AM. Those schools are able to get student athletes to fall and spring contests on time so we don’t expect there to be a significant impact. There are times now when student athletes are dismissed early to travel, and this will also be true if we change the start time. This is a reality in all North Country school districts, particularly late in the fall and early in the spring when the days are shorter. Our teachers are very good about accommodating student athletes, and we work hard to provide advance notice of all early dismissals.
We have done extensive analysis in this area to determine the precise impact. We currently dismiss athletic teams early about 16 times over the course of the school year. This is spread across all of our modified, JV, and Varsity teams at the middle and high schools. With the change being proposed, the number of early dismissals would increase to about 31 over the entire school year. We have identified precisely what teams would be impacted and the effect on individual students. 90% of middle and high school athletes would be dismissed early 4 or fewer times over the course of the entire school year, about the same number of times a music student would miss a particular class for lessons. If a change is made, the high school principal and staff may be able to make adjustments to the current schedule to minimize the impact of early dismissals.
Practices now occur from 2:30 - 4:15 PM. With the proposed change, practices would take place from 3:15 - 5:00 PM.
Q: A change in start time will impact the child care arrangements for my elementary and/or middle school child(ren). Has the district considered this?
A: The district recognizes that any change is going to have an impact on family schedules. We hope that, by making the decision to change by May 1st, families will have enough time to make necessary adjustments. During the 2016-17 school year, Lawrence Avenue Elementary School began offering a before- and after-school Latch Key program. This low-cost child care is supervised by school staff. The Latch Key program is open to all families, and the hours of availability will be adjusted to accommodate any changes in the school schedule.
In addition, our current fee structure assume one price no matter how long a child attend the program in the morning or afternoon. Recognizing that some families may need middle or high school children to look after their younger siblings in the afternoon, we have created a new option that would allow families to pay for only an hour in the afternoon if their elementary child rides the middle school bus home.
Finally, though we do not currently offer a Latch Key program for 5th and 6th graders, we would certainly consider doing so if there were sufficient interest from parents. We would model the fee structure after the elementary program. With a later middle school start we would only offer a before school Latch Key program at AAK. All middle school students are eligible to participate in the Beyond the Bell Program free of charge. This program operates for three hours each day after the middle school dismisses students.
Q: Under Option #1, If the elementary instructional day would begin begins, at 8:00 AM, won’t this result in our youngest student getting on the bus in the dark during the winter months?
A: We have understood from the beginning that this would be a significant concern for many. Therefore, we are recommending the addition of two bus routes for elementary students, reducing the length of the ride to about 45 minutes. With this adjustment, no students should board the bus before 6:55 A.M. Our newest buses are equipped with LED lights that illuminate the path to the bus. If a change in start time is made, we will retrofit the remaining buses so that they all have this equipment installed.
Q: I understand the sleep research, but by flipping the start times, aren’t we just shifting the problem to younger students?
A: The shift in the Circadian rhythms occur at the onset of puberty. For the most part, teens become “night owls” while younger children are “larks.” That is, while older students have difficulty falling asleep before 11:00 PM, younger children are more likely to fall asleep early and wake closer to dawn. With an earlier start time for elementary students, the school schedule would be better aligned to this pattern.
Q: Is there any research regarding the impact of an earlier start time on elementary students?
A: Unlike the well-established body of research on the effect of start times on secondary students, there are not many studies that have looked specifically at the impact on elementary students. We do know that younger children’s circadian rhythms are different than those of older students. Elementary students tend to naturally wake earlier and find it easier to fall asleep earlier in the evening.
We were able to find a few small studies that looked at the impact a change in school start time had on younger students. One small study found an increase in behavioral concerns, but the author cautioned that he was not able to control for other variables. Other studies show a positive effect. Particularly compelling are the anecdotal comments provided by elementary teachers who worked in schools where the change to an earlier start time was made. Many of these teachers commented that students seemed more attentive and better able to learn earlier in the day.
Interestingly the instructional day at many of the elementary schools in St. Lawrence County currently begin around 8:00 A.M.
Q: We host many BOCES special education programs in our school district. How will the change impact the schools who transport students to Potsdam.
A: The Superintendents of the schools who transport to Potsdam have been notified of the potential for a change in the school schedule to allow them ample time to make any necessary transportation adjustments. As the host for these programs, our district sets the schedule for the school day. PreK-12 students in the Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) program are already on the later schedule and would likely remain on this schedule if we were to make the change in our start times.