Thumbs down on later school start time in Amherst
KEVIN GUTTING Kip Fonsh is the new chairman of the Amherst Regional School Committee. Purchase photo reprints »
Although the Regional School Committee voted 6-3 Tuesday against starting secondary classes 75 minutes later, a compromise proposal for a 15-minute delay has surfaced.
Michael DeChiara, a committee member from Shutesbury who voted for the 75-minute proposal, said he’d like to see both the elementary and secondary schools start 15 minutes later. Amherst School Committee Chair Katherine Appy, a member of the regional panel, said she endorses that plan and got the impression that other members would have voted for a less drastic change.
“Given the importance of figuring out how to let adolescents get more sleep, I’m willing to look at more modest changes,” she said Wednesday. “The medical research is unassailable. Little kids and adults can get up earlier without too much problem, but adolescents really struggle.”
Appy said the next step is to discuss a 15-minute delay at a meeting of the chairs of the Regional, Amherst and Pelham School Committees.
Tuesday’s vote was to keep the current schedule, in which the secondary schools start at 7:45 a.m. and the elementary schools at 8:40 a.m., enabling both systems to use the same buses. Members defeated a proposal suggested by Superintendent Maria Geryk to start the secondary schools at 9 a.m. and the elementary schools at 8:15 a.m.
The vote came after two years of studying plans designed to enable teenagers to be more alert in class by getting more sleep at night. Two years ago, a task force composed of parents, teachers and administrators studied the issue and suggested a later start time.
On Wednesday, parent Joshua Goldstein, who chaired that task force, sent an email to the School Committee suggesting that members consider a 15-minute delay. He said he wasn’t surprised that the 75-minute proposal failed, calling it too disruptive and divisive, and backed DeChiara’s 15-minute suggestion.
“It would give some sleep benefit and totally minimize inconvenience to elementary parents and student athletes alike,” Goldstein wrote. “It’s super-simple to implement, the middle and high schools would start at 8 a.m., which is at the early end but not totally out of the zone of later start times nationally. The change would also give a bit of help to those sixth-graders whose sleep cycle is already shifting, and it would soften a bit the difficult transition to the middle school morning schedule in seventh grade.”
But Kip Fonsh of Leverett, who chairs the Regional School Committee, said Wednesday that he disagrees.
“It’s premature to consider any re-examination until the dust settles and we have an opportunity to look at everything that’s out there and place this issue in the context of all the other changes taking place in the district,” he said.
About 100 people attended Tuesday’s meeting and about 20 addressed the committee, including several student-athletes in uniform whose sports would be at risk if the schedule change were adopted.
“If you vote in favor, it could be the biggest blunder any School Committee has ever made,” said parent David Noonan of Tanglewood Road. “The whole principle is based on the assumption that if you push the school day forward, kids will go to bed at the same time they go to bed now. The problem is, you never asked students what they would do. They would stay up later.”
Fonsh said he opposes interfering with family schedules, adding that the amount of time students spend with quality teachers is more critical to academic success. “This is a far more important conversation than what time kids wake up and go to sleep,” he said.
Member Rob Spence of Amherst said he favors a later start time, but the 9 a.m. proposal has too drastic an impact on athletics. Geryk has said that five teams would probably have to be eliminated if the proposal were adopted, because of complications resulting from a 3:30 p.m. dismissal time.
Committee member Lawrence O’Brien of Amherst said the school district needs to focus on other changes taking place, such as in curriculum and teaching. “I’m concerned that another change would be initiative overload,” he said.
Member Richard Hood of Amherst said the cost to sports programs was too high for him to support the proposal. “Sports teach kids things that could be more important than what they learn in class, like how to fail and get up and try again,” he said.
Appy, DeChiara, and committee member Amilcar Shabazz of Amherst were the plan’s only supporters.
“My mandate is to represent all students,” Appy said. “Research shows that later starts help students who are economically and academically challenged. Isn’t it our mission to work on closing the achievement gap? This would be a significant step in that direction.”
DeChiara said he would prefer a middle course such as starting the secondary schools at 8:30 p.m., but Geryk had said that would be too expensive because of extra busing costs.
The majority of parents and students addressing the committee Tuesday were opposed to the proposed schedule change.
Bridget Dahill of Cottage Street, whose daughters are athletes, said sports are important to girls’ self-esteem. Most research defines a later start as 8 a.m., she said.
“I need to be at work at 8 a.m.,” she said. “If school starts at 9, how does my daughter get out the door on time?”
Leah Goldman, a senior and athlete at Amherst Regional High School, said she has a job that starts at 5 p.m. “This asks me to quit my job to participate in sports,” she said.
Several parents argued in favor of the change. Kemper Carlsen of Leverett said research on teenagers’ brain development and circadian rhythms shows that they are not fully awake until 10 a.m. “I think the science is there,” she said.
Lydia Peterson of Leverett said the change would move Amherst into the 21st century.
“Education should be first, busing and sports second, not the other way around,” she said.