West

Vote set for later Natick high school start

A Natick School Committee proposal designed to give high school students a little extra shuteye by starting classes later next school year has been the talk of the town since last spring. Now, after much debate and handwringing, the School Committee is prepared to vote on a measure Monday.

One option has classes starting about an hour later, and another 45 minutes later.

Supporters say it will improve students’ health and performance, but opponents look to the end of the day when after-school activities will drag on later, delaying dinner and homework.

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“A lot of people are unhappy with the time change [proposed] in the high school,” said Jane Boyle, Natick Parent Teacher Student Organization copresident, in an interview.

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“They feel it will make the day longer. A longer day will mean sports end later, homework will get done later, and parents generally feel children aren’t going to get that extra hour of sleep that will help them by going to school later.

“Most people that talk to me are very unhappy and don’t want a change in the high school.”

Several Massachusetts school systems have already made the change, including Duxbury, Hingham, Nauset Regional, and Sharon. Ashland High started to consider a change last spring.

In an Aug. 25 online policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that middle and high schools start classes at 8:30 a.m. or later. The report, which was also published in the September issue of Pediatrics, says the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents shift up two hours later at the start of puberty.

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“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the US today,” said Judith Owens, pediatrician and lead author of the report, in a statement. “The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores, and an overall better quality of life.

“Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”

Natick School Committee chairwoman Amy Mistrot called the AAP report a “big callout” but also noted that it is a big challenge logistically for the district.

“It has a lot of moving parts that makes it a complex conversation, but I think Natick is on the forefront of this conversation,” she said in an interview last week. “I think we are out early on it.”

Currently, high school students start at 7:30 a.m., middle school students start at 7:50, and elementary start times range from 8:15 to 8:50.

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Changing the high school start time has a domino effect for middle and elementary schools because the district has only one set of buses. Therefore, two options for changing the start times are on the table Monday.

‘Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the US.’

Under the first option, middle schools would start at 7:30 a.m., elementary schools would start at 7:50 a.m., and high school would start at 8:32 a.m.

Under the second, middle school would start at 7:45 p.m., elementary schools would start at 8:45, and high school would start at 8:15 a.m.

Under the first option, high school would let out at 3:19 p.m. and under the second, it would adjourn at 3:02 p.m.

Mistrot said the second option would also add $118,000 to busing expenses because the department would have to add two buses to the fleet.

“We have heard some feedback that ‘For $118,000 I’d rather see two teachers versus additional busing,’ ” Mistrot said.

Another option — to simply swap the high school and elementary times — was scrapped during the second of three community forums on June 7.

“Most consistently we heard that that was an untenable option for families,” Mistrot said. “Seven-thirty was too early to have [K-5] kids up and at school.”

Elementary families also did not like the idea of losing the BOKS, a popular before-school physical activity program sponsored by Reebok that was piloted in Natick in 2009 and has since gone nationwide.

Susan Haverstick, a Natick High teacher and union rep, said the union has not taken a position on the issue because there is no consensus among educators.

Mistrot said that even though the community forums on start times were in the spring, the School Committee decided to table the discussion until this fall.

“I really wanted to allow families the opportunity to get back to school and get kids settled,” she said. “This is a really big decision if the start time change is approved, so we are taking up the decision [at the committee’s] Sept.22 meeting. I fully intend that we will take a vote that night.

“I think the School Committee is looking at this decision with a lens of how to support student achievement while also balancing the impact of the other levels in the community, and hoping there is maybe a balance.”

Mistrot said the vote could go either way.

“At this point I do not know how the committee will vote,” she said. “I specifically have not asked, because I do not want people to feel coerced in any way but to vote in a way that they are supporting all our students, not just high school students, in the best way we can.”

The School Committee meeting is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. at the School Committee room in town hall.