Board mulls later start times
PHOENIXVILLE >> When the time comes for the Phoenixville School Board to make a decision about later school start times, it won’t lack for choices.
In addition to the choice to leave things as they are, which seems increasingly unlikely, the board was presented with four different possible scenarios during a Nov. 13 meeting as it tries to find balance among the many different aspects affected by the decision.
How will it impact athletics? After-school activities? Busing costs and schedules? Student health? Student achievement? Costs for before- and after-school care?
All these questions are part of a crazy quilt of options, impacts and variables, each of which shifts when one thread is pulled.
These are issues the school board has been pondering for 18 months, since it first agreed to examine the issue and commissioned an advisory group to investigate the science and policy and make recommendations.
The question the district is addressing is a problem posed by biology — essentially, that teens need more sleep as a result of changes brought on by adolescence. Not only do they need at least eight hours of sleep, they need the quality deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep that comes late in the sleep cycle around 6 and 7 a.m., said Laura Daniels, a member of the advisory committee assembled by the school board that delivered its report Nov. 13.
And sending teens to bed earlier at night won’t work, Daniels said, because teen bodies do not
start producing the sleep hormone melatonin until about 11 p.m.
“We hear a lot of people say letting teens sleep later is not preparing them for real life, when they will have to get up,” said advisory committee member Steve Kosher. “But people need to understand teens are not like adults biologically, it gets easier, the older we get, to wake up earlier.”
Lack of adequate REM sleep produces several negative psychological affects including grogginess, increased aggression increased depression, anxiety, reduced ability to learn and decreased creativity the committee’s report found.
Physical affects of sleep deprivation include weight gain, increased release of stress hormones, reduction of growth hormones and a weakened immune system.
“Getting more sleep is actually protection against the common cold,” said Daniels.
Sleep deprivation also leads to decreased coordination, meaning more accidents and injuries on the athletic field, as well as, when combined with grogginess, more vehicle accidents involving student drivers, the study found.
The reverse is also true, she said. Teens who get more sleep, not only have fewer sports injuries, “athletes are faster, stronger and better performers after this kind of change,” Daniels told the board.
Biology is not the only cause of sleep deprivation among teens.
Use of “screens” also causes sleep deprivation because the “blue light” from cell phones, computers and other technology mimics sunlight, confusing the body about what time it is, said Daniels.
That, combined with the “alerts” those devices issue, can keep students up until all hours. “Many of our students sleep with their phones under their pillow so they don’t miss anything,” she said.
So while there are several causes and solutions to the teen sleep deprivation problem, only one is in control of the school board, said vice president Eric Daugherty.
“We can put all the cell phones away and it still doesn’t fix the math problem,” he said. “And the math problem is biology says our students aren’t going to fall asleep before 11. You can send them to bed at 9, but their bodies will not let them sleep before 11, so the math problem is getting those eight hours.”
Added Daugherty, “we’re the ones getting them up at 6 or 6:30. Even if you get the other stuff right, if we don’t do something as a board, we’re the factor limiting their sleep.”
In fact, Phoenixville High School’s start time of 7:24 a.m. is earlier than 90 percent of the nation.
School Board President Lisa Longo said the board’s first priority should be health, and the physical and mental health aspects of sleep deprivation caused by earlier start times are troubling and were outlined by sleep expert Wendy Troxel’s presentation to the community in March.
“Nationally, we’re facing an epidemic of anxiety, depression and teen suicide,” said Longo.
Presuming the school board decides to move ahead with moving to later start times for middle and high school students, several options have been presented, each of which comes with its own set of impacts on things like busing, before- and after-school care, athletics, extra-curricular activities and more.
The committee presented three options to the school board at the Nov. 13 meeting and the Phoenixville Area Education Association, the teachers union, presented a fourth.
The three options presented by the committee push starts times back by varying degrees from 44 to 91 minutes.
• Concurrent Start, the committee’s recommended option, with high school and middle school starting at 8:30 and ending at 3:41 p.m., 64 minutes later than the current start time. Elementary schools would start at 8:45 and end at 3:30, 15 minutes later than the current elementary start time.
The benefits of this option include a minimal impact on elementary school schedules, the start matches that recommended by the American Medial Association, easier logistics for families. The downside is that given that all students would be transported at the same time, the increased busing costs could be more than $1 million.
Schuylkill Township resident John Mraz told the board that “if you’re going to make these changes, the taxpayers need to know what its going to cost.”
• Delayed Start for All, with the high school and middle school starting at 8:10 a.m. and ending at 3:21 p.m., 44 minutes later than the current start times. Elementary schools would begin at 9 a.m. and end at 3:45 p.m., 30 minutes later than the current elementary start time.
The advantages of this option include increased sleep for all grade levels, that older students get home before their younger siblings and it is the least disruptive to after-school activities. Downsides include not as much additional sleep for teens as doctors recommend; more elementary families may need before-school care for their children and the latest elementary bus drop-off would be at 4:45 p.m.
Schuylkill Township resident Justin Clark told the school board that increased before- and after-school requirements could cost his family $400 a month. “I have two children and that adds up to $10,000 over the next four years. There are families in this communities for whom that cost could mean less food on the table.”
• Flip With Delay, which has high school and middle schools starting at 8:45 and ending at 3:56, 91 minutes later than the current start time for secondary students. Elementary schools would start at 8 a.m. and end at 2:45 p.m.
Benefits of this option include the most additional quality sleep for secondary students and reduces the need for before-care for elementary families. Downsides include the negative effect the late end-time would have on athletics and afterschool activities; elementary students would be home before their older siblings and the resulting after-school care costs; earlier elementary start could impact the sleep patterns of fifth graders, particularly girls, who may already be experiencing the biological changes that require later sleep in the morning.
• Teachers Proposal, would push middle and high school start times to 8:05 a.m. with an end time of 3 p.m. Elementary schools would start at 8:55 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m.
Teachers Michael Donnelly and Eric Rutchauskas described the plan presented by the Phoenixville Area Education Association as a compromised with the committee’s “delayed start for all” proposal.
Their proposal also includes an “adjusted bell schedule,” which makes classes two minutes shorter, a time savings which adds up to 11 minutes over the course of a full school day.
Rutchauskas cited a 2014 student that showed a start time of just 25 minutes later would result in an increase in students getting eight hours of sleep from 18 percent to 44 percent. Their proposal, which pushes start times back by 30 minutes, has “minimal impact” on busing, extra-curricular activities and child-care concerns, he said.
Their proposal also calls on parents to impose a rule stopping electronic device usage an hour to two hours before sleep, in order to maximize the additional sleep time.
None of these proposals is written in stone and Donnelly told the board the teachers are happy to make adjust ments to their proposal as the district, board or community requires.
“These are not competing plans,” said school board member Kevin Pattinson. “We are all looking at the same topic trying to figure out what is best for our students and the district.”
Longo said the board has many things to consider at the moment, but still wants to hear more input from the community before moving forward.
Toward that end, three additional community forums on the sleep issue and start times have been scheduled in the coming months. They are:
• Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 6:30 p.m. in the high school cafeteria;
• Thursday, Dec. 13, at 6:30 p.m. in the cafeteria of Barley Elementary School;
• Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, at 6:30 p.m. in the middle school cafeteria.
Phoenixville Superintendent Alan Fegley urged those planning to attend to go to the school district website — http://www.pasd.com/community/sleep_exploration — and register, both so the district can plan for how many will be there, and also to be able to plan to make Spanish and Portuguese interpreters available for those who need them.
Questions and input about the issue can be emailed to the sleep advisory committee at start&end[email protected] pasd.com.
Longo also urged Phoenixville to learn lessons from the Unionville-Chadd’s Ford School District, which changed to later start times this year, and has already begun to notice benefits.
In the meantime, board member Christopher Caltagirone urged that the discussion begin to include more date and impacts on elementary age students.
“It feels like much of the data and attention in these discussions are on the middle school and high school and I’ve heard from elementary parents that they don’t feel like their concerns are being taken into account,” he told the board.
If the board wants the community to get on board with whatever proposal is chosen “we need to make sure we explain what the benefits for the elementary families are,” he said.
But the change should be made, said Phoenixville High School freshman Leo Sereni, who also serves on the sleep advisory committee.
Noting that students he has spoken with on the subject seem “hesitant” about the change, but he also noted that he sees students “falling asleep in first period.”
“Sometimes, what people want is not what they need,” said Sereni, adding that “great change never comes with minimal challenge.”
The school board was shown research indicating that 90 percent of high schools nationwide have a later start time than Phoenixville High School’s start time of 7:24 a.m.
This chart shows that, according to a survey, only 22 percent of Phoenixville High School students get enough sleep each night.