Though New Canaan’s youngest students would start school first—instead of last, as they do now—under a new schedule that district officials are considering, those kids wouldn’t need to be picked up by buses until after it’s light outside, officials said last week.
Because buses could head out in the morning from each of the three geographically distributed elementary schools—that is, closer to students’ homes than they do now, in picking up New Canaan High School kids—a 7:45 a.m. start time at East, South and West would mean the very first student wouldn’t need to be picked up until 7:06 a.m., according to new estimates from the district.
Though such a system would require additional buses and brings with it several practical challenges (see below), it also would allow NCHS to start at a sufficiently late morning time with respect to adolescent health, officials said Friday during a special Board of Education meeting.
Under the proposed system, seventh- and eighth-graders at Saxe Middle School would start with NCHS at 8:30 a.m., while the fifth and sixth grades at Saxe would start together at 9:15 a.m.
The schedule would see elementary schools run through 2:15 p.m., while the high school and seventh and eighth grades finished at 3 p.m. and fifth and sixth grades at 3:45 p.m., meaning all levels would have a 6.5-hour school day, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi said at the meaning, held in a conference room at the district’s administrative offices.
The potential new start time schedule—what Luizzi called a “prototype,” developed much work from Roy Walder, transportation coordinator for New Canaan Public Schools—follows multiple surveys and workshops involving the schools and wider community, and is built around an anchor assumption that grades seven-and-up start at 8:30 a.m., as recommended by pediatricians.
The draft prototype schedule “aligns with the research” around school start times for teens and also “groups our three elementary schools together, so that those kids’ in-school and out-of-school experiences, professional staff, are all aligned—you don’t have elementary schools at different times, where one might have an advantage over another, or anything like that,” Luizzi said during the meeting, held in a conference room at the district’s administrative offices downtown.
“And then fifth and sixth grade alone in the last tier, all the grades come together, it’s a town-wide experience for the fifth and sixth grade in the last tier, and because we are traveling the whole town in the last tier, it helps to get the kids home a little bit earlier, since there are fewer students on those buses.”
Yet the new system also has some downside, Luizzi said—for example, it’s “not as efficient a system as we currently have.”
“As you know, that’s been a wonderful thing and a challenge for us. It’s been great that we have such an efficient system. Right now, all of our buses as they are moving through, it’s really finely tuned, and that is thanks to Roy and years of thought. Every year, he refines it a little more and that is how it has gotten as efficient as it is. When we move into a system like this, it becomes less efficient, because you have significantly more students riding in the first wave than you do in the third wave. If you have all of the elementaries going in the first tier and then grades five and six going in the last tier, you have excess capacity in the last tier … By our nature, we don’t love that part of it. But that’s part of what you have to consider when you consider making a shift. Other challenges that could exist … would be things like after-school activities and the timing of those things.”
The Board of Ed is expected to take up the topic at its 7 p.m. Monday meeting, in discussing its overall proposed budget for next fiscal year.
It isn’t clear how much the proposed new schedule would cost New Canaan in terms of busing, though officials said during the meeting it could require about seven more buses than the district currently uses. Each additional bus costs about $100,000 annually, district officials have said in the past.
The new start times themselves are not absolutely definitive, and may need to change for several minutes in either direction for various reasons, officials said. For example, it isn’t yet clear where next year’s crop of kindergarteners live, so routing times for those kids is an unknown. The figures supplied by Walder in putting the “prototype” together also likely do not account for the total time it would take to get all children off of their buses in the morning at least 10 minutes prior to the 7:45 a.m. bell time, he said. Also, given the routing in some cases, it will be difficult for buses once they’ve unloaded at the elementary schools to get quickly enough to the first pick-up for the next “tier” (seventh- through twelfth-grade students) in order to stay on schedule, Walder said. And in some cases, there are aides who ride with elementary-school-age kids on the buses now who are taken back to those schools after school once the bus has completed its route, whereas under the new “prototype” system they would go immediately to Saxe or the high school for the next drop-off tier, he said.
One other and major practical challenge of the proposed new system, too, is that at the end of the school day, the buses take kids home and “we expect parents to meet kindergartners, we would like to have parents meet the other kids as well,” Walder said.
“If there is no parent available to receive the kindergartner, we are required to take that kid back to school. Under this scenario, you will see that it’s clear: There is no time to make a trip back to West School before coming to the high school. It’s like 16 minutes just to go from West School to the high school. It’s just not going to work. So what it would mean is if we can’t deliver the kid at home, we are going to have to bring that child either to Saxe or to the high school, because that’s what the second tier is, and have them dropped off there. Now the challenge with that is we have to have someone there that can watch the kids and the complication is that that person is unlikely to know the child or the parent, and how do you know match those up when someone comes to pick up somebody? At the elementary school, they pretty much know all of the parents. They’ve met them, greeted them and so on. But that wouldn’t have occurred at Saxe or the high school. So it is a complication that would have to be resolved.”
In addition to Walder and Luizzi, those in attendance included Board of Ed Chair Katrina Parkhill, Vice Chair Brendan Hayes and members Dionna Carlson, Sheri West and Bob Naughton, who participated by phone. Also present were New Canaan Public Schools Director of Finance and Operations Dr. Jo-Ann Keating, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Dr. Jill Correnty, Director of Human Resources Darlene Pianka, Director of Pupil and Family Services Bill Tesbir, New Canaan High School Athletic Director Jay Egan and two members of the public.
Asked about what types of challenges a 3 p.m. NCHS dismissal time could bring, Egan noted that the high school now has early dismissals only rarely, and that the home team sets starting times for games. Egan said he was cornered about what travel times would look like at 3:30 p.m. in Fairfield County versus 2:30 p.m.
“I think that is an implication with this with respect to travel and athletics that is a concern of mine,” he said. “I’m going to hypothesize that it’s going to be more time on the bus.”
Other practical considerations of a changed schedule include ensuring practice times for student-athletes using non-school facilities, such as those participating on swimming and ice hockey teams, he said.
It’s been more than two years since the idea of changing school start times was formally proposed at a public meeting. A survey sent out to middle- and high-school students, parents and guardians, school staff and community members was inconclusive, according to results shared at a presentation this past summer. Though most all who have taken to the podium at Board of Ed meetings to address the elected body have agreed that established health data says teens should start school at 8:30 a.m. or later, some parents of elementary school-age kids have pushed back on the idea of starting their children’s days earlier.
The “prototype” model discussed Friday is similar to a school start times scenario that Board of Ed members said they favored during a June meeting.
On Friday, Board of Ed members asked what’s the earliest time a bus collects a student under the current schedule (6:27 a.m., though that’s a high schooler), whether New Canaan could save money by reducing bus drivers’ hours in cases where a bus doesn’t run for the “third tier” of drop-off in the afternoon (that would need to be negotiated between the bus company and its drivers), whether buses that would be empty for the third tier could take on kids to divide up routes and get kids home sooner (the problem is that there’s only so much room at Saxe to pull in and load them) and what would be reasonable pickup times for elementary school parents whose kids go into an after-school program (about 3:15 to 3:30 p.m.).
West asked whether the earliest 7:06 a.m. pickup time under the proposed new system was post-sunrise year-round. Walter said it was, under the definition of “civil daylight,” meaning it’s bright enough outside for normal activities without flashlights.
“I think the answer to your question is that we are not walking in the dark, either going home in the afternoon or going in in the morning,” Walder said.
There are two main reasons that having elementary school kids start first would allow for a later “first-pickup” bus stop time, officials said. First, as compared to NCHS students being picked up throughout town, the rides are shorter when travel times involve buses starting in three New Canaan neighborhoods and returning to those elementary schools with students. Second, Walder noted that NCHS students can be dropped off at school 20 to 25 minutes prior to the first bell with no worries, allowing the buses to leave again for another round of pickups, but the elementary schools should aim to arrive back around 7:35 a.m. or just 10 minutes prior to the start of classes, so that the young kids have time to calm down and ready themselves for first class.
Luizzi said next steps would include discussing the prototype with school managers during Monday’s budget workshop, and deciding whether or not the proposed spending plan for fiscal year 2021 would include funds for a new busing system.
Carlson said she was concerned that not enough work had been done in presenting the prototype to the community. Naughton agreed, saying an informational session should be held for parents.
West said that the prototype itself was developed in response to the Board’s research and feedback from the community and that the schedule it presents is “the most responsive to all, in totality.”
Parkhill said moving forward with the budget workshop as Luizzi had outlined “allows the process the continue” and that the Board has the opportunity to garner more community feedback.