Later Start Approved for Pierson Middle-High School

Pierson Middle-High School in the spring of 2017. Christine Sampson photo

By Christine Sampson

Students at Pierson Middle-High School will start school 15 minutes later beginning in September after the Sag Harbor School Board voted Wednesday to move the school’s start time following several months of discussions.

The board voted 6-1 to move Pierson’s start time to 7:50 a.m., which will mean the school day will end at 2:51 p.m. The school day previously ran from 7:35 a.m. to 2:36 p.m. The start time of Sag Harbor Elementary School was moved by five minutes, from 8:45 a.m. to 8:50 a.m., with a new dismissal time of 3:25 p.m. Board president Diana Kolhoff made the motion with a caveat attached to it: that it would be accompanied by continued discussions on how an even later start time can be achieved for academic years beyond 2017-18.

Several board members acknowledged the research of professional organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control, who have shown that starting school early in the morning has been associated with higher rates of health risks such as sleep deprivation, depression, substance abuse and, for students who drive, more car accidents. Wednesday’s decision is the second time in recent memory that the school’s start time had been moved later; a ten-minute change was enacted for the 2015-16 school year.

Board member Susan Lamontagne continued to lobby for the 8 a.m. start time that the board had identified in a specific goal last year, but seconded Ms. Kolhoff’s motion after she suggested the process continue.

“I think there are going to be challenges and downsides with any approach. To me, the biggest downside is doing nothing,” said one of the board’s newest members, Alex Kriegsman, who was elected in May. “I think that this is a good compromise to implement in the fall, and spend next year talking about if is there a way to go to 8 a.m. or even 8:30 a.m. so we can have our cake and eat it, too.”

Board member Chris Tice was the lone board member who voted against the motion, although she did so while recognizing that the research supporting later school start times is clear.

“I struggle with advocating and supporting what science is still telling us is an unhealthy start time,” Ms. Tice said. “I would really advocate for a very different process next year. There’s a different way to try and find the right solution, and we didn’t go down the best practices path.”

Board member Tommy John Schiavoni, who works as a teacher, said starting early in the morning “is not the best model.”

“There really is a difference in students in the morning, and that’s my own personal observation,” he said. “We should be moving start times later, but we should be mindful of students participating in shared sports.”

Indeed, that was where the discussion turned before the board took its vote. Pierson principal Jeff Nichols spoke up to say the change would mean students in shared sports programs would be late to their practices, but said he would not favor changing the academic support period.

Superintendent Katy Graves threw her support behind Mr. Nichols, saying, “I think we need to listen. He’s got the boots on the ground. He has steered this middle-high school in the right direction. … I think we really have to respect academic support and not toss it around like a basketball that we’re trying to catch.”

Ms. Graves also advised the board that “we have a community that kind of got left behind in our rushing forward.”

“I don’t think they’re feeling very listened to,” she said. “There are some community members who are calling and visiting us. They’re feeling left behind on this.”

Responses were mixed among the handful of community members who spoke during public comment at the end of the meeting.

“That was very anticlimactic,” Larry Baltz said. “I want to thank everyone for this.”

Kate Lawton cautioned the board against making the academic support period voluntary. “It’s really important to me, because it’s a slippery slope if we excuse some and not excuse others,” she said.

Ken Dorph thanked the board. “I’m all for later start,” he said.

After the meeting, Mr. Nichols said the next steps in the process were fairly straightforward.

“The schedules will just switch,” he said. “We’ve moved the start time in the past. There are some adjustments that have to be made, but I don’t think there will be any big issues.”