By Tessa Raebeck
After hosting seven workshops in less than two months, the Sag Harbor School District has made headway on researching ways to move school start times later, but remains far from ready to implement a change.
A later start to the school day, especially for high school students, has been advocated by health and education experts nationwide, after research has shown a later start time is better for students’ overall health and safety, behavior and academic performance. Despite the indisputable benefits to children, however, implementation faces practical challenges: established schedules for classes, bus routes and classes; faculty and staff contracts, parents’ work requirements, and cultural behaviors that are in many cases deeply ingrained.
Although Sag Harbor parents have individually advocated for later starts at various times—and to various superintendents—over the past decade, national momentum toward a change surged in August, when the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report calling chronic sleep deprivation in adolescents a national health crisis and recommending no American high school start before 8:30 a.m.
Human sleep cycles change during adolescence; teenagers naturally feel alert later at night and have difficulty falling asleep before 11 p.m. Teenagers also need more sleep, requiring at least 8.5 hours, a mere pipe dream for those who have to get on the bus at 6:45 a.m.
Mirroring the national conversation, the movement has gained significant traction in Sag Harbor, which, like many other schools on Long Island, has one of the earliest start times in the country. The Pierson Middle/High School schedule runs from 7:25 a.m. to 2:26 p.m., with many students waiting for the bus in the dark to make it to first period on time. Sag Harbor Elementary School starts the day with morning program at 8:35 a.m. and goes to 3:10 p.m.
Spectators are rare at school board meetings, perhaps not surprisingly, but on Tuesday some 30 parents, students and teachers filled the Pierson Library to hear the board discuss its options. The district’s administrative team compiled extensive data on various aspects and costs of a potential switch, including the effect on athletics schedules and bus routes, the two primary challenges of a change (data available at sagharborschools.org). The plans would range in cost and effectiveness, but none was selected by the board or highly favored by those in attendance. Some options come with significant price tags, while others do little to solve the problem.
Several options would continue operating separate bus runs for the elementary school and Pierson, which are “what saves us the most money,” Jennifer Buscemi, the school business administrator, said. Under other plans, however, the bus runs would have to be combined, which would require significant costs and the potentially problematic situation of 5-year-olds riding the bus alongside teenagers.
The probable annual costs for the first three options, which start both schools after 8 a.m., could range from $401,986 to $625,799, Ms. Buscemi projected. Options 4 and 5 have no additional costs, but Option 4 simply swaps the schools’ times, starting the elementary school early instead, and Option 5 starts Pierson at 7:35 a.m., a mere 10-minute improvement, but a possible starting point, Ms. Graves said.
The sixth option gives Pierson a 7:45 a.m. start time, with 9 a.m. at the elementary school, and would have a much lower cost of $75,000 for contracting out additional sports runs, which Ms. Buscemi said would “not be a very large impact on our tax cap,” whereas that of options 1, 2, and 3 is substantial.
“My general feeling,” said school board member David Diskin “on this is that to make a significant change, it’s obviously a huge amount of money.” Although Mr. Diskin said he saw the benefits of a change, he added he “would hate to see us reduce programs because we made the switch.”
But advocates of later times maintain its better to be roughing it in the beginning of a change than catching up at the tail end, and the momentum is definitely growing. Parents in Southampton, which starts its high school at 7:30, have also urged the board to adopt later times. While Sag Harbor was debating Tuesday, a school district in Dorchester, South Carolina, voted to move its start time later next year.
Switching times is difficult, but not impossible. Schools in Pierson’s athletic conference, the Ross School and Shelter Island High School, both start at 8 a.m.
“I don’t think we have found the right solution—the right option—yet,” said school board vice president Chris Tice. “I think we needed to go through this process to say what are the big rocks, what is the data—I’m not convinced that all the options that are potentially viable are on the table yet…the average district that has made a change takes six months to two years to explore this, we took a month.”
The board spoke in favor of putting the issue on the back burner for now, with hopes of reconvening with better preparation after the budget season. They urged community members to use the extensive data and information compiled by the administration to research more cost-effective, sustainable options.
The community appeared ready and willing to take the reins.
Jackson LaRose, a sixth grader at Pierson, asked the board to consider moving the elementary school schedule from 9 a.m. to 3:35 p.m. and Pierson from 7:50 a.m. to 2:50 p.m., “So the buses have enough time and I don’t think it would cost anymore money,” he said. His little brother, 8-year-old Beckham, agreed, saying, “I need more sleep.”
Laurie Marsden, a parent, said after transitioning to middle school this year, her daughter is “struggling still and it’s December. She’s never had a headache in her life and she had headaches the first two weeks of school straight.”
“I know that every single parent that I speak to says they wish the school was later and they talk about how they’re struggling. They talk about how difficult it is not just for their children, but for their whole family,” said Ms. Marsden.
Jean Cowen, the mother of a seventh grader and a former teacher, suggested moving the academic support to beginning of the day, rather than at the end as it stands now, and making it optional. The teachers’ school day—and contracts—would not be affected, nor would bus routes. School would start at 8:05 a.m. for students whose parents can drive them later, with students who need academic support or to be at school earlier so their parents can get to work riding the bus at the regular times.
“Asking kids to get up and perform at the 7 a.m. hour is equivalent to asking an adult to get up and perform at the 4 a.m. hour,” said Susan LaMontagne, adding there are ways to make the change with very little or no costs, and she and other parents are willing to find out how to make it work in Sag Harbor.