Eight months after hearing that they would be part of a working group dedicated to the task, parents in plain language on Monday night called for the Board of Education to open a “formal and public study” to evaluate later school start times in New Canaan.
Saying she represented more than 600 New Canaan Public Schools parents who have signed an online petition advocating for later start times, Megan Steele said the group respectfully requested “that the Board of Ed members put to vote the immediate formation of a ‘School Start Time Committee’ to be formally and publicly created, per the bylaws, so that we the public can have full knowledge of any meetings, process and progress, and additionally provide meaningful input into this outcome.”
“It is a very important decision and we know it is a complicated one,” she told members of the Board of Ed at their regular meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School. “We know we need to understand the costs, the logistics and possible solutions. But we believe we must put our teens’ health first and take a holistic, creative approach to making this work. As parents and registered voters, we are entitled to this from our Board of Ed and school administration. Can we be assured that you will vote to create a formal and public committee on school start times before any recommendations or decisions are made by the administration’s group to the Board of Ed?”
The comments come on the heels of a panel discussion Thursday on the health benefits of adolescents getting more sleep, led by Dr. Craig Canapari, director of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center. (Steele noted that attendees “learned that night that Saxe and New Canaan High School are in the bottom 10 percent of schools across the nation with 7:30 start times—90 percent of the nation’s schools either start later or are considering a shift.”)
The panel included Dr. William Flynn of New Canaan Pediatrics LLC, who joined his colleagues recently in explaining that later start times have shown increased academic performance, decreased mood disorders and reduced car accident rates among teens.
Martina Kaiser parent to an eighth-grader at Saxe Middle School, told Board of Ed members at the meeting that as an engineer, she understand the importance of using “data-based decision-making to make good decisions as we go forward.”
“And what we hear is that the science is backing the need for later start times for teens,” Kaiser said. “I know personally that my daughter will be much more focused in class and science also backs that teens will be much more focused in class. In addition to that, science says that there will be reduced suicide rates, reduced tardiness and fewer accidents because teens will simply be much more aware as they are going to school and in school. So I ask that you consider that data as you are moving forward to look at this important issue for our community.”
Kaiser said she moved to Connecticut nine months ago from 2,500 miles away, and that the number-one factor in the family’s decision to come to New Canaan was the schools.
“This is an amazing educational system and I have been very impressed since I moved here,” Kaiser said. “And I think what makes this system so wonderful is that there is such a spirit of community. Everyone in this town understands that it is extremely important to educate our children and that they get the best education possible. So I ask as you look at that, please keep that spirit of community as you look at later school times for teens and please keep that as an open process that is formal so that everyone who is engaged in this as a stakeholder has the opportunity to be input and to be part of this process moving forward.”
Board of Ed Chairman Dionna Carlson cut off Kaiser at that point, saying she had used the two minutes allotted to each speaker during the public comments period of each meeting.
Kelly Gray, who has kids in the ninth and seventh grades, said her main concern in seeking later school start times was her children’s health.
“This is time of their lives when they are developing both physically and mentally and the studies show that sleep plays a role in their wellbeing,” Gray said.
She said her kids sometimes don’t get home until after 9 p.m. from extracurriculars and sports and then do homework late into the night.
“And I know that we are not alone in this type of schedule, and this then leads us to waking up at 6 a.m., so we struggle to get to school on time and I am sure we are not the only ones,” Gray said.
She asked whether the district tracked tardiness rates among seventh- to twelfth-grade students.
“Has a study been done on how much school is being missed due to tardiness?” she said. “Is there a way to count the instructional minutes that are lost? I would also suspect that there are a number of children who miss the bus and therefore are driven to school at a later time. Have we ever done a study on that? What is the number of seventh- to twelfth-grade students who are supposed to ride the bus? And what is the actual number of riders on a daily basis?”
District officials have said in the past that bus scheduling and associated costs are among the variables that an administrative team is studying, with the help of a contracted third-party consulting firm, as it works toward a recommendation for the Board of Ed on starting school later. Because the team includes only public school administrators and not Board of Ed members or parents, its meetings are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and it can meet out of the public eye.
After district officials said last August that they would examine later school start times this academic year, they also said initially that a working group of parents, Board of Ed members and New Canaan Public Schools representatives would take up the task.
Yet no such working group materialized, and district officials said instead that they expected the administrative team to make its recommendations directly to the Board of Ed, at which point input would be had from parents. In January, district officials ruled out the possibility of starting school later next academic year. Parents who favor the later start times then began attending the school board’s meetings and addressing its members during the public comment period, as they did Monday.
No board members addressed the parents on the question of school start times or a formal and public committee. One Board of Ed member, Maria Naughton, appeared to ask for permission to address the issue following the public comments period and as the next agenda item got underway, but was prevented from doing so by the chairman.
The superintendent of schools, Dr. Bryan Luizzi, did address parents at a meeting in January, thanking them for attending at that time and saying that NCPS was closely following how nearby districts who have made the change are faring and to find out whether any hard data can be had to see what effects the change is having.