Letter: Risks and Concerns Over Board of Education’s Start Time Initiative


Letter to the town,

As many in town are aware the Board of Education is requesting about $1 million for additional buses and drivers to implement a strategy to essentially swap “too early for high schoolers” start times with this towns elementary school children. There has been much debate over this issue, and some have devolved this into high school parents versus elementary school parents, and that should not be the case. Many people who are opposed to this plan actually support trying to get our high schoolers more sleep, but not solely on the backs of our towns youngest learners and risking the very educational system that draws many new families to this town.

Here are some facts on the BOE’s plan that appear clear. (But as always please let me know if they are substantively incorrect.)

  1. We currently have one of the top ranked school districts in all of Connecticut, ranked 2nd in the last Niche school survey. Which is probably the reason many have and continue to move to our town. This change would directly affect students that will be in our educational system and town for many years to come.
  2. This change would result in us having the earliest start time out of more than 1,200 elementary schools in Connecticut.
  3. The average starting time for the top 12 ranked school districts has an average elementary school start time of approximately 8:45 a.m., almost a full hour later than what is being proposed. (Detailed breakdown in previous letter to New Canaanite.)
  4. School districts that have shifted their high school start times later, have not done so by essentially swapping their “too early for high school” start time with elementary schools. (Please note Westport, Greenwich, and Norwalk). For some of these districts they specifically ruled out starting elementary school children this early. They approached prudently until they came up with a solution or chose to wait as opposed to simply swapping times.
  5. The very same tables that they base their 8-9 hour sleep requirement for high school students clearly state that young elementary school students should get 11-12 hours of sleep, an average of three hours more.
  6. There is research available that specifically warns against swapping high school and elementary school start times, which I have forwarded to the BOE. The studies surveyed and analyzed over 700 elementary schools and 300,000 elementary school students. The message in both articles appeared clear that either younger children did not simply compensate for earlier start times by sleeping earlier or the concept of “Optimal Learning Times” being tied to start times was invalid.

One article was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology and authored by Keller and Buckhalt and titled “Earlier School Start Times as a Risk Factor for Poor School Performance” and states clearly:

“Of particular concern is that the growing public support for delaying middle and high school start times is often at the expense of making elementary school start times earlier.”

It adds: “Findings clearly show that—at least for middle- and upper-class students—earlier school start times can be associated with poorer school performance in elementary schools. The implication is that research on school start times should not focus exclusively on adolescents. Sufficient sleep is of critical importance across development (Fallone, Owens, & Deane, 2002)”

The article concludes: “Finally, we provide one of the very few examinations of school start times and test scores in elementary schools. Our findings indicate that early school start times may be just as detrimental for young children as they are for adolescents.”

A second article was in Sleep Health (Journal of National Sleep Foundation) titled “Earlier start times are associated with higher rates of behavioral problems in elementary schools” by Peggy S. Keller. The article also clearly warns against what the Board of Ed is trying to do here.

It states: “Examination of elementary schools is an especially important direction for research because when school districts attempt to shift start times, they sometimes choose to have elementary schools start earlier so that adolescent students at middle and High Schools can start later and bus schedules can be maintained.” Sound familiar?

The article adds, “Elementary school students then must wake earlier. In a recent study, however, elementary schools with earlier start times had lower average standardized test scores and were ranked lower on academic performance than other schools. The implication is that the sleep restriction associated with early school start times would be shifted to younger children.”

However, in addition to the academic performance this study focused on a concern that has been brought up in the past. That these kids are too young to identify and cope with sleep deprivation and will frustrate easily and act out because they have not learned to self-regulate their emotions. Indeed, the study appears to indicate that there is some evidence of this.

The second Keller article includes this: “Our current findings linking earlier school start times and behavioral problems support the hypothesis that sleep restriction might act as a mediator of the relation between earlier start times and child behavioral problems. Indeed, early school start times may be linked to behavioral problems especially in preadolescent children, as they have relatively less executive control and self-regulation skills.”

Getting the required sleep is as at least as important for elementary school children as it is for high school students and required bedtimes for elementary school children would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for these young children to participate in many after school activities.

Some of these elementary school children, as young as five, may be waiting for their bus in ether darkness or under driver vision impaired conditions. Although this might represent only a handful of days, many towns who considered this option have been concerned with just this possibility and decided against it.

And perhaps the most relevant factor for the town, is that there appears to be clear indication that this proposal is not what the town wants (even at a fraction of the cost). On the two surveys the Board of Education commissioned, at taxpayer expense, the option they are trying to push through is the most strongly opposed by all stakeholders in one survey at less than half the cost and the lowest scoring alternative in the other survey which assumed this option was completely free. In both surveys it was clear that the current schedule remains preferred to their proposal, even at much lower cost.

For many in the town the objection to the plan is not over high school start times being moved back, as it is broadly supported. It is the cost to our youngest learners who will be in our educational system for many years to come and whether this risky plan would be good use of about $1 million this year and hundreds of thousands of dollars annually every year going forward.

8 thoughts on “Letter: Risks and Concerns Over Board of Education’s Start Time Initiative

  1. Thank you for an excellent letter, James. Clearly makes the case not moving forward with the current initiative.

    I would only add that, in addition to the ‘cost’ of lost sleep to elementary school students, there are also significant ‘costs’ to parents of those students as well as to school staff/teachers, that do not appear to have been fully considered, never mind the outright costs.

    It is now up to others outside of school administrators and the Board of Ed to act, which is sad, but necessary.

  2. Thank you James for your thoughtful and thorough article. There has been much debate in town on start times and the one thing is clear is ALL parents want their children to have good sleep to arm them for their education. This isn’t about budget but about doing what is right by ALL children.

    It has been clear from town surveys and many, many studies that the proposed start times fall OUTSIDE of the pediatric guidelines for sleep for our youngest (no child is going to sleep at 6pm) and that parents (the majority) do not support the current proposed plan. In fact, it was the lowest scoring scenario by far.

    All our children deserve their sleep and the parents of this town (at least a true majority) deserve a scenario that is a good fit – they have spoken loud and clear through multiple town surveys and we do not have it at this time.

    Unfortunately, the ill fitted proposed plan continues to surge forward which is confusing to say the least – my hope is that the Town Council and Board of Finance will see the foolishness of this plan and reject the budget but keep an open mind should a much better plan be proposed with the right thought. This is important for all our children and at this point they have waited long enough for a solution but not this one.

  3. Pls don’t be disrespectful to others, Jennifer, by using capital letters, which is SHOUTING your opinion to others, as you may know.

  4. James thanks for writing such a good post. To be honest in all this back and forth on the issue I have lost track of what the town overall is really getting from this annual $1m investment (or which option we are even talking about now – is it 7:45 or 9:15 for elementary school kids?). For transparency we are in ‘early birds’ at West, but I can assure you there is a real difference between an aspirational drop off at 7:45 and your child is tardy if you are not there by 7:45 drop off. I know the stress of this from New York where we had literally ‘gates closing’ at 8:20 – it is not awesome for anybody involved. With a 6, 4 and 2 year old in the house I am sure you can imagine what our mornings look like – irrespective of any (good or bad) planning that takes place the night before. I really hope that if we make this change that we are getting a large benefit as a community from it….

    • Appreciate the support Giacomo. The current plan is for elementary schools to start at 7:45 AM, with first school bus pick-up at 7:06 AM. As I indicated it would be the earliest in all of Connecticut. With a 6, 4 and 2 year old I applaud you on your ability to make it out of the house in the morning. Your hands must literally be full. I have a 5 and 7 year old and they do not make their own breakfast or necessarily get dressed without prompting. Heck. my 5 year old literally needs her butt wiped sometimes. My wife runs a pretty tight ship for the kids, but believes in a decent breakfast and a reasonable pace. Could it be done faster? Sure. I guess they can be jostled up changed, hair brushed, teeth brushed and she can throw a breakfast bar at them as they run for the bus. I guess that stress can be my 5 year old’s first introduction to school, but should it be? We just want my 5 year old girl to be little for a little longer.

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