An internal district working group has found that New Canaan should continue researching “slightly later start and end times” for the middle and high school and “slightly earlier” times for elementary schools, according to research that the superintendent of schools made public Monday night.
As it considers whether to make changes so that high schoolers aren’t starting so early, New Canaan Public Schools “should prioritize student sleep and time for homework in making scheduling decisions,” according to a presentation that Dr. Bryan Luizzi shared during a meeting of the Board of Education.
The Board of Ed remains far from reaching a decision—its members talked about convening a public-facing committee in September and reiterated that nothing will happen until the 2019-20 academic year, in part for budgeting reasons.
While Luizzi reviewed much of the scientific evidence surrounding adolescent sleep and health (“The research has shown me that this is an important consideration for schools,” he said, adding that “the science of it certainly seems to be pointing to a need for schedules to be developed that facilitate student sleep”), an April survey from Hanover Research—of 1,312 middle and high school students, 1,126 parents and guardians, 379 school staff members and seven people from the wider community—found that respondents perceive starting school later would have a negative effect on homework (as well as activities outside of school).
Yet the survey also found that respondents believe starting earlier complicates parents’ work schedules and before-school care, and has a negative impact on participation in school publications and performing arts programs.
“Ultimately, I don’t know what the answer is going to be,” Luizzi said at the meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School and attended by more than 50 parents.
“Certainly, before we know the cost and the benefit, I don’t think it’s wise to say, ‘On this date we want to make this change.’ I think that the charge to us as a team would be to develop a couple of scenarios that do a cost-benefit analysis that can then go before the board, go before the community for conversation. We can hold community forums in the fall prior to or right around the same time to share what the scenarios are, what the cost-benefits are. We would be interested in feedback. But this is something that you resist the urge to go into this with a solution already in mind, because it is already very complex.”
Luizzi’s presentation marked the first time the widely anticipated findings were made public. Though it stopped short of making a specific recommendation on whether to start school later, the presentation did outline criteria for that decision and frame a community-wide discussion to come.
If school started later, the survey found, 87 percent of the students and parents who responded said the teens would spend the “extra” time sleeping longer and 57 percent said they’d do schoolwork.
School staff, meanwhile, “generally have more positive views of earlier school start and end times than other stakeholder groups, and much more negative views of later school start and end times than other stakeholder groups,” Hanover found. About two-thirds of staff respondents indicated that a later school start and end tie would negatively impact their work schedules, the survey found.
That’s a concern, said Board of Ed member Sheri West, adding that she wanted to “better understand” the views of staff because it “could negatively impact recruitment and retention.”
Other school board members raised questions about how starting all schools at closer times together would affect traffic, how to ensure that the district is correctly timing a future transportation study and how nearby school districts that have made a change weighed such negatives against benefits in reaching their own decisions.
The committee that is to convene in the fall will include Board of Ed members and parents, Chairman Dionna Carlson said.
“We will progress from there, with an eye to have some kind of information for November of budgetary impacts for whatever recommendations you bring forth,” she told Luizzi.
West said it would be important to have “town representatives” from the Board of Finance and Town Council “with a deep understanding of all the research and process, so when we enter in to the budget season there are people who have been on the journey with us.”
The Board of Ed in August said it would study the question of later school start times, and the following month officials said a working group that included parents would develop recommendations for the full board. New Canaan Public Schools administrators ultimately put together an internal group to study pros and cons, and to glean what good data could be had from districts in the region that recently have made the change. Parents have called for the district to open up its study to the public, and many have urged officials to start 7th through 12th grade at 8:30 a.m. or later (NCHS starts at 7:30 a.m.), citing health benefits.
Several of those parents also took to the podium during a public comments section of Monday’s Board of Ed meeting, prior to Luizzi’s presentation.
Heather Moore, who has a daughter in the 9th grade and son in 6th, said she attended an expert panel organized by the Healthy School Start Times New Canaan group, and learned there that insufficient sleep caused by “excessively early start times” can contributed to increased anxiety, depression, substance abuse and car accident rates. She also cited data that said just 10 percent of schools in the United States start before 7:30 a.m.
“I found this statistic alarming,” Moore said.
She added: “We must act now to ensure the long-term health of our children.”
NCHS freshman Hannah Moore followed by noting that while her experience so far at 11 Farm Road has been “fantastic” and that she’s a high honors student, varsity softball starter and artist, “School mornings are the worst.” Hannah described being too tired in the morning to eat breakfast, and noted how her absences from school rose sharply when she was switched to the earlier start times.
Other parents pushed back on the perception that efforts to start school later are merely an example of over-coddling youth, argued that students learn better when they’re well rested, questioned why district officials appeared to be ignoring experts on health and took aim at the April survey itself as confusing and misguided.
NCHS junior noted that 7:30 a.m. is dark for many of the months during an academic year, and said a change in schedule is needed in order to get adequate sleep.
“I think it’s a real misconception that if we push start times back, kids will stay up later,” she said.
[Note: The Hanover survey results hadn’t been posted to the New Canaan Public Schools website as of the morning of June 5, though typically such Board of Ed presentations are linked to on this page.]