Board of Ed Favors Plan To Start New Canaan High School Nearly One Hour Later

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New Canaan High School. Credit: Michael Dinan

With inconclusive survey results and established health data in hand, nearly all members of the Board of Education said Monday night that the district should pursue a new school start time schedule that allows teens to get more sleep.

Though the Board took no formal vote at its regular meeting, seven of eight members present said the district should devote further study to an option that would see New Canaan High School start at 8:20 a.m.—50 minutes later than the current 7:30 a.m. start time.

“I think that based on the research that has been done, based on the feedback that we have, it’s worth figuring out whether there is a viable option to have our teenagers go to school later,” Board of Ed Chairman Brendan Hayes said at well-attended meeting, held in the Wagner Room at NCHS. “And the likely [outcome] from that, although I think [it’s] also beneficial for our younger students, is for them to go to school earlier.”

Under the proposed new start time schedule, all of Saxe Middle School would start at 9:05 a.m. (currently 7:30 a.m. for seventh and eighth grades, 8:20 a.m. for fifth and sixth) and the elementary schools at 7:45 a.m. (currently 8:20 a.m. for South School, 9:05 a.m. for East and West).

The additional buses needed to realize that system would see New Canaan pay an additional $300,000 to $450,000 annually, officials have said.

In comments that garnered support from Board Secretary Jennifer Richardson, Maria Naughton, Katrina Parkhill, Penny Rashin, Julie Reeves and Sheri West, Hayes rejected some other proposed start time options that would be even more expensive—one of them would cost an estimated $1.2 million to $1.4 million more each year—or pushed school end times prohibitively late in the day. (Board member Tom Cronin, who is not seeking re-election, was absent.)

“I don’t want to suggest we go down a path that I think is just unrealistic in light of the budget pressures we are under,” Hayes said.

Noting that New Canaan Public Schools rank among the very best in Connecticut and among the best nationwide, Hayes cited the district’s broad-based prioritization of health and wellness, saying that if nothing changed, “we will not remain first in the state and among the best in the country.”

It wasn’t immediately clear what the district administration’s next steps would be, though Hayes said further study would be taken up in the fall and winter, with an eye on gaining approval for a budget for the following fiscal year and implementing the new schedule for the 2020-21 academic year. Some Board members urged creation of a definitive timeline as well as a working committee that would include parents, while others called for more information on what the survey showed to be wide opposition to the proposed new schedule among district staff.

Board of Ed Vice Chair Dionna Carlson said she wasn’t ready yet to support a different schedule.

“The survey is about as clear as mud,” Carlson said. 

School parents and staff were furthest part on both the current and newly favored three-tiered systems, according to the survey, whose findings were summarized during a presentation (which can be found here) by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi.

A total of 1,464 middle and high school students, 1,390 parents and guardians, 549 staff members and 115 community members took the survey.

A sample of results from parents and staff showed the while 42% of staff “strongly support” the current system, 36% of parents “strongly oppose” it. At the same time, while 44% of staff “strong oppose” the favored new schedule, while 28% of parents “strongly support” it—nearly twice the figure that “strongly supports” the current system, and 29% of parents “strongly oppose it (the lowest figure among the surveyed groups).

Carlson noted that the survey, conducted by Arlington, Va.-based Hanover Research, showed no strong preference among stakeholder groups with respect to health and wellness for the new start time option.

“We are sort of around 50%, so half like it, half don’t, and whatever we do, based on the results of this survey, I’m guessing half the people in this community are going to be happy and half the people in this community are going to be very unhappy,” she said. “So we are sort of in a little bit of a lose-lose as a Board. I am not anywhere yet. I have not made a decision. I think there is a lot of data that we still need to collect.”

For example, while getting all three elementary schools on the same schedule makes sense, Carlson said she worried about now putting younger Saxe students on the same buses as older ones.

“Having been in this community for over 20 years, the one way we sell Saxe as being the largest school, as a middle school [in Connecticut], is that we separate out the fifth and sixth [graders’] transportation and the seventh and eighth transportation so that they are never on the same bus together, and that is how a lot of parents have gotten comfortable with Saxe being the largest middle school in the state,” she said. 

Carlson—who had called for the Board to exclude unrealistic school start time options from the survey—called for a re-survey that would ask for the community to rate the current schedule against the newly favored one.

She also said the “social-emotional outcomes” of students who attend schools that start later have been found to be no better than New Canaan’s, at least in some cases. 

“And so to me, I need to understand for $350,000 to $450,000 a year that that will escalate from here to eternity, what are we really getting out of that?” She said. 

Finally, Carlson said she’s received comments from parents “who are afraid to speak at these meetings or comment because they feel a group in community is silencing them or making them feel that if they try to say something, I have heard the word ‘bullied’ used.”

“So I would like to encourage, this is a very difficult issue for all of us to tackle and not everyone believes the same thing as everyone else, but we are one community and we need to come together with whatever decision is made and be respectful of everyone’s opinions,” she said.

A handful of parents, including a prominent local pediatrician, shared their opinions during a public comments section of the meeting. 

Physicians and health data say that later school start times result in better academic performance, decreased mood disorders and reduced auto accidents among teens.

Town resident Graham Lampen said he’s seen his diligent and hard-working 14-year-old son find it increasingly hard in the past two years to stay awake in class because he must rise at 6 a.m. to get to school.

Lampen said his son “dreads going to school because so tired” and “never gets a lie-in.”

“It just makes sense for teenagers,” Lampen said of starting school later. 

He added, “What is the point of our having a world-class school system in our town if when they get up they are so shattered that they dread going to school?”

Other parents said they’ve removed their children from New Canaan Public Schools specifically because they found private schools that started later. Some said they would have moved to Wilton, which has had its later start time in place for 10 years, if they knew then what is now data-driven knowledge about the health benefits for teens of getting more sleep.

Lifelong New Canaan resident Dr. Bill Flynn, whose own children went through the system, said he’s seen a change in the past 20-plus years where New Canaan children are shown to get less sleep than those from other towns.

“In my experience it’s a very real thing—you won’t be making a mistake,” Flynn said of changing school start times. 

Luizzi and Hayes both said the district’s existent health and wellness initiative is broad-based, and several officials at the meeting noted that changing start times was one strategy but not a standalone solution to wider problems facing teens.

“While start times are an important issue, they are an issue that we have to examine in the context of everything else that is done within the school system and what is best for all students, not one particular group of kids, one particular school or one particular issue,” Hayes said. “It’s a complex system that we are managing.”

West said she wanted to “better understand the staff opposition to this and really understand is it an inconvenience that they will get over or is it actually something that they will make a job decision based upon?”

“That for me is my biggest outstanding concern and something I would want to really drill down to understand,” she said.

10 thoughts on “Board of Ed Favors Plan To Start New Canaan High School Nearly One Hour Later

  1. Yep, property values sinking and taxes rising, so spend another $300K on an effort that is 50%/50% at best in terms of perceived benefit. Sounds like the Hartford crowd has migrated to New Canaan.

    • Sleep is non-partisan. Later start time supporters are both democrats and republicans. The 50/50 number that you quote was extrapolated from a townwide survey and represents teachers, parents, students, and community members’ desire to change, not the scientific benefit. All major medical associations, including the AMA, AAP, and CDC all 100% agree that adolescents, whose body clocks have changed, need 8-10 hours of sleep per night. With the current schedule, they are getting 7 or less, and 1/3 of students are getting 6 or less (this fact is from another survey done last year in New Canaan.) This is not optimal for crucial brain development, not to mention that sports injuries increase in sleep-deprived athletes, as do the use of drugs and alcohol and car accidents. Well rested teens are good for the entire community. If we have to cut other programs to find the money, it will be worth it.

      • Sorry. Not buying your rebuttal.

        Your revs/tax base goes down, you spend less, not more. People leave, you spend less, and so forth.

        Make choices, elected officials, particularly when it comes to issues like this one.

        And, allowing for a clear benefit, what will we not do to fund the incremental $300k?

  2. Start times during my time at NCHS from 1976-1980 was 8:20 am. I have no skin in this game, but the time does have historical precedent.

  3. What I took away from Monday’s Board of Ed meeting, which I attended as an interested resident, was that the board supports the idea of the administration now analyzing in detail all the implications of one particular set of possible different start times against the current start times. The board did not say they favor implementing any plan over the current start times.

    This story’s second paragraph says it the way I heard it, which is that the consensus of the meeting was that the board should “devote further study” to one particular option. I say respectfully, Mike, that the story’s headline about the board favoring a plan to start later and the lead paragraph saying the board feels the district should pursue a new start schedule strike me as off the mark.

    Brendan Hayes emphasized in his remarks that he would like the administration and the board to speak with all of the constituencies in town that would be affected by the possible change being analyzed and drill down to learn in detail what the implications would be for each group. Then, with that specific analysis of one optional plan completed, likely in the fall, the board could then decide if that plan is preferable to the current plan with all things considered.

    • Thanks Greg, taking each of your points in order:

      1. The survey—which gauged how respondents felt about the current schedule, as well as the new options—was designed to help the Board of Ed decide how to guide the administration as next budget season nears. They’ve already got a good amount of information in hand, such as how much the current busing system costs versus the new schedules, and Board members cited that information in singling out the 8:20 a.m. NCHS start time option. So the Board of Ed, with the exception of one member, said it “favored” a specific option among them. It’s the right word. The headline doesn’t say the Board “settled on,” “chose” or “recommended” that option— presented with a slate of options, its members by a 7-1 count voiced support for one.

      2. We report on these meetings to give good information to our readers, not to soften unwelcome news because it’s easier. It would be a great disservice to bend over backwards with an overly wordy headline like ‘Board of Ed Recommends Exploring Further Study of New Start Times Schedule’ for fear of telling New Canaanites what’s happening or because we feel that may be easier for an elected official or district administrator to read. As a local news editor, I don’t think you can prioritize appeasing those in positions of leadership over getting good information to residents. If come fall and winter, the administration comes back and says, “There’s no way to make this work” and the Board of Ed ends up being OK with that and there’s no effort to seek additional money for buses next budget season, I’ll eat my words.

      3. You are correct that the Board Chairman talked about what it will mean to further study the preferred start time option. He also spoke specifically to the need to change in order for New Canaan Public Schools to stay on top. He cited a local pediatrician’s comments from earlier in the evening, specifically, talked about the district’s focus on health and wellness and even talked about how elementary school kids tended to struggle later in the afternoon—a problem that would be addressed through the “favored” start times option. When it was their turn, the other board members with one exception spoke in favor of those comments. (And I gave ample space in the article to the one Board member who thinks otherwise.)

      Not that I begrudge anyone their sleep: If I was overseeing this change, I also would want stakeholders to hear words like ‘possibility’ and ‘explore’ for as long as possible.

      I’ll wrap up by noting this: The current schedule was included in the survey alongside these new options, so the respondents and Board may have chosen to say definitively (as district staff did) that they prefer the current schedule. In fact, the vice chairman raised her hand and said she wasn’t ready to say she favored exploring one of the new options over the current one. If Monday’s discussion and decision was of no real consequence, why would she even need to lodge that dissent?

      Thanks again for your comments.

  4. I expressed my opposition to Ms. Carlson comments about bullying at the meeting on Monday night. Such comments are toxic and purposefully designed to pit parents in our community against each other. There are a group of dedicated parents who have identified a serious health issue and made every effort to educate the public of that health issue. They have created a website, written the BOE members, and consistently showed up at meetings to further educate the BOE (in the 2-minute time allotted for each parent). They welcome other views. They know that there are those who like the status quo and others that have concerns about after school activities. That makes sense and should be a part of this conversation. In the end, an extra hour of sleep will help your teen in school, athletics, and their overall well-being, even if he or she is an early riser. Despite Ms. Carlson stating she has not made a decision, she has made every effort to stall any meaningful advancement of the topic by continuing to advocate for more surveys based on her own feelings on the topic. Unfortunately, the survey statistic that was the most concerning for me as a parent was the fact that our teachers and staff do not believe that an extra hour of sleep will be beneficial to our teens health.

  5. I have to say…. Dr. Flynn (whom we love) just reiterated pretty firmly at my 5 year olds physical that children through 3rd grade MUST get 12 hrs of sleep. My kids, 5yo and 7.5, go to sleep earlier than most kids their ages (7:30pm) and wake around 7/7:30am. I work full time and we get home around 6:15pm. We rush through dinner, bath, homework and family time, to keep that routine and they are well rested. So, I’m curious…. does this mean I need to get them in bed at 6:30pm, to get up by 6:30am in time for the bus? There is no way.

    • Exactly! The elementary schools starting at 7:45 (and presumably ending at…2:15?) will be disastrous for working parents. It nearly doubles the amount of time that kids will be in after-care at the end of the school day. I get home around 6:15 with my kids (8, 6, and 4) and by the time they are fed, bathed, and in bed, it is usually 8:15. An earlier elementary school schedule would only cut into sleep time and family time. If teenagers must start later, I would rather see the town invest in enough busing to have a reasonable start time for everyone.

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