Pierson teacher Eric Reynolds tries to wake up his student Shane Hennessy in class on Wednesday, September 24. Photo by Zoe Vatash.
By Tessa Raebeck
On weekday mornings, Grace Gawronski’s alarm goes off at 6:20 on the dot. The 12-year-old reserves about 10 to 20 minutes to drag herself out of bed, then spends another 20 to 30 minutes getting ready for school at Pierson. She gets on the bus at 7 a.m. and arrives at school between 7:10 and 7:15 to make it to class by the starting bell at 7:26.
Most days she doesn’t have time to eat breakfast or pack a lunch, and her stomach rumbles until she can buy some cafeteria food during her lunch period.
Grace, a seventh grader, is in school from 7:15 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon. After school, she has two hours of field hockey practice or a game, which can involve upward of an hour of travel time to and fro. She gets home at around 5 p.m. and starts her homework, which takes her 45 minutes to two hours.
“I am tired throughout the whole day,” Grace said Tuesday. “When I get to field hockey practice I’m very tired and I really don’t feel like playing sometimes because I’ve been in school all day. But it’s one of my favorite parts of the day.”
Her most favorite part of the day, Grace said, is after school, sports, homework and dinner, when she finally gets to return to her bed. Grace tries to get in bed before 10 p.m. so she can get eight hours of sleep, but said she needs “at least nine and a half hours of sleep to be wide awake the whole day.”
Schedules like Grace’s are prompting a discussion among parents and administrators about potentially moving Sag Harbor’s middle and high school starting times—which are some of the earliest in the country—about an hour later, to 8 or 8:30 a.m.
In addition to personal anecdotes from tired families, research into teen sleep cycles and the effects of sleep deprivation on mental and physical health, as well as on behavior, safety, and academic, athletic and extracurricular performance have prompted the Board of Education to look into ways to balance healthier starting times with already established schedules.
At its meeting on Monday, September 29, the board is expected to announce a district goal to come up with plans that would allow Sag Harbor students to sleep later.
Busing logistics, both in the morning and to after-school sports, are often cited as the key reason schools start their days around dawn and end mid-afternoon. Sag Harbor’s head bus driver Maude Stevens said in an email Wednesday that she hasn’t been “approached by anyone in the district about time changes.”
In addition to pointing to scheduling obstacles, some opponents of later times express fear that teenagers will start going to bed later and parents who need to be at work by 9 a.m. will be unable to get their kids on the bus or drop them off. Those were the concerns raised upstate last year after Glen Falls High School changed its start time from 7:45 to 8:30 a.m. The school board narrowly voted to stand by the changes and in the first year, students’ grades improved, teachers said they were more alert in class and the percentage of students who were late for school dropped by nearly 30 percent.
“It can be done, because there’s a ton of school districts throughout this country that are showing us it can be done,” said Susan Lamontagne, a Sag Harbor parent who has been at the forefront of the national push for later start times for over four years. Some schools, she said, have early morning hours for families who need students dropped off earlier so parents can get to work. Research shows students with later start times aren’t going to bed any later, they are simply getting more sleep.
“It’ll be challenging,” Superintendent Katy Graves said of the potential switch, adding the board will be forming an ad-hoc committee “to look at what are all the challenges involved with the later start time and what are the pieces that we have to put in place to make a later start time happen.”
Mr. Reynolds tries a little harder to wake up Shane Hennessy on Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Zoe Vatash.
At previous school board meetings, Vice President Chris Tice cited the research in support of later start times and encouraged the board to look into how it could be applied in Sag Harbor. Other board members appear to be supportive while acknowledging athletics as a major obstacle to a change.
“They’re listening to the community and they’re listening to the medical community and they’re saying, ‘Let’s see if we can make this work.’” Ms. Graves said of the board.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged the scheduling difficulties in an NPR interview last September during which he voiced his support for later start times.
“But at the end of the day,” he said, “I think it’s incumbent upon education leaders to not run school systems that work good for buses but that don’t work for students.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics also weighed in on the issue in a publication released last month, in which doctors recommended all American middle and high schools start after 8:30 a.m.
Calling insufficient sleep in adolescents “an important public health issue,” the academy urged schools to aim for later times that allow students to get at least eight and a half hours of sleep a night, in order to improve physical health and reduce obesity risk, improve mental health and lower rates of depression, increase safety by limiting car crashes caused by “drowsy driving” and improve academic performance and quality of life.
Pierson senior Zoe Vatash said she usually wakes up between 6 and 6:30 a.m. “which is late compared to some of my friends.”
“Teenagers need more sleep. Telling us to ‘just go to bed earlier’ isn’t realistic and isn’t working,” she said.
During teenage years, the body’s circadian rhythm shifts some three hours backward, making it nearly biologically impossible for teenagers to go to bed earlier than 11 p.m. and awake before 8 a.m.
“Because of the shift in their circadian rhythm, asking a teenager to perform well in a classroom during the early morning is like asking him or her to fly across the country and instantly adjust to the new time zone—and then do the same thing every night, for four years,” said David K. Randall, author of “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep.”
On Shelter Island, school starts for all students at 8 a.m. Everyone rides the same bus, with elementary students in the front and middle and high schoolers in the back.
“Shelter Island is even smaller than Sag Harbor and often travel time to games can be quite long” with added travel time on ferries, said Jean Cowen, a Sag Harbor parent who was the guidance director for the Shelter Island School District for 25 years.
The school day on Shelter Island ends at 2:30 p.m. and teachers are contractually obligated to stay in their rooms until 3 p.m. to provide extra help, which many also do voluntarily from 7:30 to 8 a.m.
Senior Liam Rothwell-Pessino, who travels to Pierson from his home in Springs, wakes up for school before 5:30 a.m. “At least in theory,” he said. “Most days I hit the snooze button a few too many times.”
If he had gone to the Springs School, which has students in kindergarten through eighth grade, instead of Sag Harbor, Liam would have started school at 8:20 a.m. and gotten out at 3:10 p.m. Instead, he aims to leave home by 6:40 and get to school by 7:10 at the latest, in order to have time to stop by his locker and be in class before the 7:26 bell.
Sag Harbor parent Andrea Grover said the current schedule “negatively impacts an entire family, and I know we are not alone.” Her 12-year-old Lola wakes up at 6 a.m. to get to Pierson Middle School in time for the morning bell.
“Last year her lunch was at 10:15 a.m.; this year it’s mercifully one period later,” Ms. Grover said. “I drive her to school because it buys her an extra 30 minutes of sleep and because I don’t want her waiting for the bus on Noyac Road in the dark.”
After dropping Lola off, Ms. Grover heads home to wake up Gigi, her 9-year-old who attends the elementary school, then returns to town to drop her off by 8:35 a.m. when morning program starts.
“So from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. I am in transit between my children’s schools and my home, and then I finally head to work. I’d say we are often all sleep deprived,” said Ms. Grover, who added that out of the schools her children have attended in Texas, Pennsylvania and other towns in New York, Pierson Middle School starts the earliest. Ms. Grover said Lola tells her she is tired at least once a day.
Liam, the senior at Pierson, confirmed the condition: “Ask any high school student how they’re feeling and nine times out of 10 the response is, ‘I’m tired,’ or something along those lines. On a daily basis, I will see four middle school kids out of five holding a coffee cup walking down the hallway. That’s not even an exaggeration.”