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Citing Exhausted High Schoolers, Sag Harbor Parents Ask for Later Start Times at Pierson

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Susan LaMontagne addresses the Board of Education Monday, February 10.

Susan Lamontagne addresses the Board of Education Monday, February 10.

By Tessa Raebeck

By 7:25 a.m. when many adults are either still asleep or just getting up, Sag Harbor teenagers are in class, solving math problems, writing chemistry equations, and, some say, struggling to stay awake.

Since the mid-1990s, school districts across the country have taken measures to push back morning start times for high school students, citing research that says early times interfere with the natural circadian rhythms of growing adolescents, who require more sleep than adults and naturally have more energy at night and less in the early morning.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has voiced his support for later start times, posting on his Twitter account in August, “Common sense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later.”

Despite the research and growing public support, however, many school administrators are wary about changing start times due to potentially detrimental effects on student athletes, who practice and play games after school. Administrators also cite the logistical concerns of having enough sunlight for outdoor games and the inherent difficulties of competing against schools with different hourly schedules. Later times would also require transportation schedules to change, an obstacle with undetermined costs.

At the Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting Monday night, several parents showed up to advocate for later start times, present the board with supporting research and offer their help in determining how such a change could be implemented in Sag Harbor.

As it stands, the bell rings for first period at Pierson Middle/High School at 7:25 a.m. The sixth grade eats lunch at 10:17 a.m., seventh and eighth grade students eat at 11 a.m. and high school students eat at 11:43 a.m. The last class ends at 1:49 p.m. and students have academic support, an optional period they can use as a study hall or to get extra help from teachers, until 2:26 p.m., when the academic day ends.

The Sag Harbor Elementary School starts at 8:35 a.m. and gets out at 3:10 p.m.

A parent of two children in the district, Susan Lamontagne founded the Long Island Chapter of Start School Later, a nonprofit coalition of health professionals, sleep scientists, educators, parents, students, and others “working to ensure that all public schools can set hours compatible with health, safety, equity, and learning.”

Addressing the board Monday, Ms. Lamontagne cited sleep research that has found teenagers’ changing hormones make it difficult for them to go to sleep earlier than 11 p.m. and wake up before 8 a.m. Some Pierson students wake as early as 6 a.m. to get ready, catch their bus and get to class in time.

Ms. Lamontagne referenced schools across the country that saw increases in attendance and test scores and decreases in failing grades, depression, sports-related injuries and teen-driving related accidents once later start times were implemented.

At Nauset High School in Massachusetts, after the start time was moved more than an hour later, to 8:35 a.m., the number of days students were suspended for disciplinary reasons decreased from 166 days in the first two months of the 2010-2011 school year to 19 days in the first two months of the 2011-2012 school year.

In 2011, the Glen Falls City School District BOE voted to change the high school start time from 7:45 to 8:26 a.m. effective September 2012. In an interview with PostStar, Principal Mark Stratton stood by the board’s decision, although he admitted some students, particularly those who play sports, were unhappy about getting home from school later.

According to Mr. Stratton, after a year of the later start time, by September 2013 the percentage of students who were late to school dropped by almost 30 percent. The number of students failing courses also decreased, from 13.6 percent to 8.6 percent.

Glens Falls City School District does not provide transportation for its students, removing one obstacle cited by administrators considering earlier school start times.

“We want to offer our help,” Ms. Lamontagne told the board Monday, adding that she and others are willing to walk the administration through the experiences at other districts, the logistics of changing times and “the full body of research.”

“All of the research that I’ve read indicates that there’s only benefit to the students’ health and performance,” replied Chris Tice, the board’s vice president, saying she would like to “at least put it on the table and hear back from the administrators on their thinking that—if that was going to be the will of the board—what would it take to make that happen.”

BOE member Susan Kinsella said, while other districts have lights on their athletic fields, Sag Harbor has no such means of finishing games in the dark.

“We have problems as it is finishing games in the fall,” agreed Todd Gulluscio, the district’s athletic director, adding that Sag Harbor students have longer travel times to and from games than other districts that have implemented later start times.

“For me,” added Mr. Gulluscio, “from an academic standpoint, if the kid’s going to miss something, I’d rather it be academic support than a class.”

Ms. Tice asked Mr. Gulluscio whether the district would be able to play schools that are closer.

He said no, “we can’t control where small schools are in Suffolk County.”

BOE member Sandi Kruel said that with the overwhelming amount of research in support of later start times, “the pendulum’s swinging backwards for us instead of forward.”

“I too have read and understand the research and it makes a lot of sense,” said elementary principal Matt Malone. “But there’s many, many factors that go into it.” He pointed to families who have structured their work schedules around the schools’ current times.

“We have to think about what’s doable,” agreed Pierson Middle-High School principal Jeff Nichols. He said the issue has been “brought up for years here” and it may be realistic to move the start time by 10 minutes or so, but in terms of athletics, the school cannot simply choose to only play schools with the same schedule.

Mr. Nichols said such a change might work with a larger school district, but not one as small as Sag Harbor.

“It would be a challenge,” agreed vice principal Gary Kalish.

Parent Diana Kolhoff said if she had to choose between having bus service and school starting later, she would choose the later time, but Ms. Tice informed her cancelling transportation is not a legal option for the district.

BOE member David Diskin said later start times “obviously” make sense in terms of the benefits.

“My personal transition—having my kids go from elementary school to [high school] time—it’s torture. I mean it’s so early, it’s crazy,” he added.

Board member Mary Anne Miller asked Ms. Lamontagne, “if there’s a roadmap or some sort of a guideline that you could provide the board and the district with so we could keep talking about it, rather than closing the door and saying it’s too difficult, because most things in municipalities have many hurdles and obstacles.”

Ms. Lamontagne proposed the board put together a small group to go through the barriers and provide the board with recommendations.

“I’m comfortable with that,” said Mr. Nichols.

No decision was made and a group was not officially formed, but Ms. Lamontagne committed to continually updating the board.

Contract for Teaching Assistants

Also at Monday’s meeting, the board approved a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Teaching Assistants Association of Sag Harbor, which has been without a contract for three years.

The contract is from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2016. It provides for 0-percent salary increases in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, a .5-percent increase in 2012-2013 and again in 2013-2014, and 1-percent increases in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016.

Dr. Carl Bonuso, interim superintendent for the district, thanked the negotiating team, calling them “respectful, caring, very clear with their perspective [and] willing to listen to all perspectives.”

The board also granted the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) the right to include the title “Occupational Therapist” within their bargaining unit.

Propose Changes to Music Program

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A music consultant hired last fall by the Sag Harbor School District gave his report and recommendations for both the elementary and middle/high school music programs on Monday.

Although he worked in many music departments of various schools across Long Island and the state, this was the first time Craig Von Bargen has acted as a music consultant, upon recommendation of district superintendent Dr. John Gratto. Von Bargen studied both the elementary school and high school for approximately four months. He complimented the district on many things related to their music program, but also gave some suggestions for the community to consider.

While Von Bargen said that he was “impressed by the professionalism of staff and administrators,” and thought the morning program was a “joy to behold,” he did make some recommendations including prohibiting the use of a tablature for the elementary guitar class.

The tablature is quicker and easier to understand than traditional note reading. Von Bargen argued that the children should be exposed solely to note reading, because if given the option, “they will most likely always choose tablature.”

Another of Von Bargen’s recommendations was to have both the music department of the elementary school and the music department of the middle/high school meet regularly to increase communication between the schools.

Von Bargen also had some recommendations about the Suzuki violin program, which is offered at the elementary school for students in kindergarten through third grade.

The consultant said that the program should not be called Suzuki, to avoid confusion, because that program is usually a one-on-one lesson. He added that the class sizes for violinists in the elementary school should be reduced from 18 to nine.

Elementary School Principal Joan Frisicano explained that while the teachers attended training for violin, the program was developed to not only teach the instrument, but for the “benefits that playing has on other areas of learning and brain development.”

When the students reach fourth grade, she said, they can select an instrument of choice.

Currently only the elementary school has an orchestra and Von Bargen would like to see the orchestra continue into the middle and high school. Other suggestions for Pierson include adding music everyday, instead of every other day, and the creation of a guitar club.

After his presentation, board of education member Susan Kinsella asked if the district should consider combining the band and the orchestra to have a symphony. Von Bargen argued that it is unusual, because those students that play string instruments will most likely get frustrated by the overpowering sound of the band instruments. Further, he said that, “musically there is nothing that is written for a whole band with a lot of strings.”

In a document that he gave to board members, Von Bargen suggested that the district implement changes that would have no additional cost to the district right away. Other changes that would impact the budget could be added over a two-year time period.