Suburban Boston superintendents favor later high school start time
A group of Boston-area superintendents has thrown its support behind the idea of starting the high school day later, a rare coordinated effort among school systems aimed at giving students extra sleep.
“The research is clear on this topic that later start times best support the social and emotional needs of our high school students,” according to a statement by the Middlesex League Superintendents, a group of 12 school systems in Middlesex County that includes Arlington, Belmont, Lexington, Reading, and Watertown.
The superintendents are aiming for start times between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. That would bring the opening bell closer to the recommendations of many researchers, who have been pushing for high school to begin at 8:30 a.m. or later.
Currently, high schools in the Middlesex League start between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. The goal is to get the changes in place by the 2018-19 school year.
Coalescing around this issue is significant, enabling the school systems to coordinate the scheduling of afterschool games and academic competitions, which can be one of the biggest hurdles in successfully delaying start times when a school system tries to go at it alone.
The school systems are among a growing number around the region — from Newton to Newburyport — that are rethinking high school start times. The Legislature is also considering a bill that would establish a task force to examine the issue statewide.
Educators, parents, and politicians have been moved by research showing that biological changes in teenagers delay the natural rhythms of their sleep cycles by about two hours, pushing their bedtimes to 11 p.m. or later. For students who must get to school by 8 a.m. or earlier, that often means they get just five or six hours of sleep.
Lack of sleep can lead to a host of problems such as anxiety, depression, poor grades, and even car crashes, studies have found. Researchers say that teenagers should ideally get between 8.5 and 9.5 hours of shuteye.
Researchers have found improvements in student performance when start times are delayed. Nauset Regional High School on Cape Cod, which pushed its start time to 8:35 a.m four years ago, saw tardiness fall by 35 percent and the number of D’s and F’s drop by half.
The Middlesex League Superintendents have been discussing the issue for several months. Eric Conti, Burlington schools superintendent, said the group decided this month it would be best for the school systems to explore the idea together.
The superintendents stress that moving to later start times is not a done deal and they will work with their respective communities to see whether such a change is desired.
“Our intention is to commit to a deadline and to the necessary consensus-building required to make a change in longstanding practice,” the statement said. “Doing what is right for adolescents will mean changing adult schedules and behaviors.’’
While the collaborative effort can help with scheduling afterschool events, each superintendent may have to grapple with issues specific to their communities, such as whether starting high school later would require flipping schedules with elementary school students to accommodate bus routes.
Melrose, which is part of the league, has been exploring the idea for more than a year, and the School Committee voted last week to push back the start times by about a half hour at its high school and middle school to 8:15 a.m., starting in fall 2017.
Superintendent Cyndy Taymore, in a memo to the School Committee before the vote, said the 8:15 a.m. start time was in the best interest of children, but was not a silver bullet.
“Moving to 8:15 a.m. will not guarantee all children are on time for school; will not prevent individual students from staying up too late; and will not guarantee everyone is on task all day,” she wrote. “However, we will improve the probability of better outcomes for students academically, physically, and social-emotionally.”
Watertown, where the high school starts at 7:55 a.m., also has been studying the idea, surveying staff, students, and parents. Survey results will be presented to the School Committee in May, said Superintendent Jean Fitzgerald. Watertown is examining start times for both its middle and high schools.
“We definitely support our students getting enough sleep,” Fitzgerald said.
She added, however, that she could not predict if a change in start times would occur, given that the high school already starts close to 8 a.m. and that the town’s small geographic area enables students to get to school fairly quickly in the mornings.
Other school systems, such as Burlington, Lexington, and Reading, are in the early stages of the conversation.
Mary Czajkowski, superintendent in Lexington, where the high school starts at 7:45 a.m., said the topic typically comes up in conversations about student stress and the potential triggers, such as homework load or a lack of sleep.
“Every superintendent will be reaching out for input,” she said.
The other Middlesex League school systems are Stoneham, Wilmington, Wakefield, Winchester, and Woburn.
Richard Pearson, associate executive director of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, said the organization has no official position on the matter. But he said the debate over the impact of later high school start times on afterschool competitions often gets overstated, noting that schools within an athletic league find a way to work out the logistics.
“Some of the challenges come up when schools play outside of their leagues,” he said.