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Cost of later start time was deal-breaker

The Regional School Committee chose the only sensible course last week when it voted 6-3 to keep the current daily schedule instead of shaking things up so that adolescents could start classes at 9 a.m. Now, after two years of study, it’s time to put this issue to rest. The Amherst schools have many reform initiatives in motion, and an effort to seek a compromise by starting all schools 15 minutes later is likely to be distracting and divisive.

Advocates of later starting times make a good case. They cite research showing that when adolescents don’t have to wake up early in the morning, they get more sleep, do better in school and enjoy better health. This is particularly true for students from low-income families, they said.

But there was no guarantee that if buses arrived 75 minutes later in the morning, teenagers wouldn’t respond by going to bed later the night before. And with all the negative consequences resulting from ending the secondary schools 75 minutes later, the possibility of having more students alert in class wasn’t enough.

The biggest impact would have been on sports. Research by Athletic Director Richard Ferro showed that six teams would likely have to be eliminated, disappointing about 100 students. And 11 other sports would have seen higher transportation costs, difficulty finding practice space or late end times for practices. Coordination of game times with other schools would have been more difficult. Many girls JV field hockey players came to the School Committee meeting in uniform last week to speak against the proposal.

There were also concerns about students who have after-school jobs or family responsibilities, and some parents were worried that they would have to leave for work before their teenage children were out the door in the morning. Committee Chairman Kip Fonsh said he was reluctant to tinker with parents’ personal schedules.

About 100 people came to the meeting and some 20 spoke, demonstrating how strongly parents feel about this issue. The overwhelming majority opposed the plan and the committee had to take this outpouring of feeling into account. Everyone might have been satisfied if the proposal had been to move all starting times to 8:15 or 8:30 a.m. But the schools of Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett save a lot of money by having the same buses that drop off secondary students around 7:45 a.m. then pick up elementary students and drop them off in time for an 8:40 a.m. start.

If the extra cost of having the same starting time for all schools was minimal, the proposal might have merited serious consideration. But the cost was estimated at $1.2 million, and that was a deal breaker. The Amherst schools are pursuing promising change, in areas like teacher collaboration and academic intervention for struggling students. Committee member Lawrence O’Brien likened adding a schedule change to “initiative overload.” A majority of the committee rightly concluded the cost of the shift was too high.

Too often in Amherst, people who lose an argument just regroup and try again. In this case, an elected committee did an extensive review, listened to the community and took a vote. It’s time to move on.

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