West

Newton considers later high school start times

A public forum on the issue is scheduled at Newton North on Tuesday from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File
A public forum on the issue is scheduled Tuesday at Newton North.

Newton school officials are considering whether to implement later start times at the city’s two high schools as part of a continuing effort to reduce student stress.

A study committee aims to have several options ready for a vote by the School Committee this spring, so that changes could be put in place by September.

The options are still being drafted, but the group is looking to push start times — now 7:50 a.m. at Newton North and 7:40 a.m. at Newton South — to possibly as late as 9 a.m. A public forum on the issue is scheduled at Newton North on Tuesday from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

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School officials say there is compelling science indicating a later start time would benefit students’ physical and psychological health, but that making the change would pose a chain reaction of problems that would need to be solved first.

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Those problems range from changes in drop-off times at elementary schools to traffic congestion — particularly on the city’s south side, where a high school and two middle schools are in close proximity. It would also create issues with after-school jobs, activities, athletic practices, and game schedules.

The contract with the Newton Teachers Association would also have to be renegotiated.

“If it were easy to do, we would see this change occurring across the state,” School Committee member Ellen Gibson, who is also on the High School Start Time Working Group, said in an e-mail to the Globe.

Momentum is growing, however. A statewide nonprofit coalition of health professionals, educators, parents, and students, called Start School Later, is working to educate the public and make changes in school start times. State Senator Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat, has also filed legislation to establish a task force to study the issue.

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In Natick, school officials studied various options to move the high school start time from the current 7:30 a.m. to 8:15 a.m., but the School Committee last year held off making changes. In Ashland, a study committee is now considering options to delay the high school start time. Duxbury officials successfully made the change and pushed the high school start time 45 minutes later to 8:15 a.m. in 2009.

“There is clear evidence that sleeping later brings health and wellness benefits to teens, whose biological rhythms change dramatically during adolescence,” Newton School Committee member Ruth Goldman, also a member of the start time working group, said in an e-mail.

The move in Newton is part of the School Department’s ongoing commitment to reduce stress and anxiety among high school students. According to a recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 79 percent of Newton high school students described their lives as “somewhat” or “very” stressful, compared with just 47 percent in the city’s middle schools.

Changing the high school start time to allow students more time to sleep would have a huge effect, according to proponents.

“The sleep cycle changes pretty dramatically in adolescence,” said Jeffrey Zabel, a member of the Newton North School Council and the father of a high school student. “It’s really hard for them to get to sleep early, and then get up early.”

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Christopher Steele, a member of the Newton South School Council, agreed.

“I have an 11-year-old and I can see the changes now,” he said. “She used to easily get up at 6 every morning, and it’s getting later and later.”

Steele said he and other advocates of the change are in the process of “helping to facilitate the conversation” among parents in the city, some of whom may have a quick negative reaction because of the disruption and cost that could be associated with making the move.

For example, fall sports such as field hockey, soccer, and football all practice outside. If the school day started and ended later, there would be less time to practice outside in daylight. Lighting fields costs money and can upset neighbors.

Scheduling games could also be an issue, with athletes perhaps having to leave school early to make it to away games if other districts don’t sign on to the change.

Bus routes would likely have to be reconfigured, and in some scenarios an estimated 16 or more buses must be added at an approximate cost of more than $1 million, according to a School Department report prepared last year.

And considerations would have to be given for students who have after-school jobs, take care of younger siblings after school, and for other student activities.

Goldman said the working group will “systematically study the multitude of challenges, gather feedback from all constituents, and convene the community in conversations,” before making final recommendations to the School Committee.

Students and teachers will be among the speakers at Tuesday night’s forum, along with Dr. Christopher Landrigan, a Newton parent, physician, and researcher in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The High School Start Time Working Group is also scheduled to make a presentation to the School Committee at its meeting on Monday. The meeting is at the Education Center and starts at 7 p.m.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@
gmail.com
.