Later Start Survey Highlights Divided Sag Harbor School District

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

By Christine Sampson

The results of the Sag Harbor School District’s nonscientific survey on later school start times show community opinion may be divided over the issue of moving the start time of Pierson Middle-High School from 7:35 a.m. to 8 a.m., a decision the school board and administration have been weighing for several months.

With 387 people answering the survey — which could have been answered more than once, by those who put some creative technological thinking into the effort — 174 people, or about 45 percent, said they were in favor of the district’s consideration of changing Pierson’s start time, while 191 people, or about 49 percent, said they were against it. The remaining 6 percent of respondents said they were not sure.

One survey question asked, “How satisfied are you with the current school start times in your child’s school?” The Pierson Middle School responses included 40 percent satisfied; 12 percent somewhat satisfied; 10 percent somewhat unsatisfied; 20 percent very unsatisfied; and 18 percent “not applicable.” To the same question, the Pierson High School responses included 42.5 percent very satisfied; 10 percent somewhat satisfied; 9 percent somewhat unsatisfied; 20.5 percent very unsatisfied; and 18 percent “not applicable.”

The survey attempted to further inform the district’s research into the issue, which is on the table after the school board last summer made it a goal to “find a way to start school at 8 a.m.” at Pierson. Pursuing that goal was based on research from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and other organizations that shows early-morning start times negatively impact adolescents and teens by leading to health risks such as sleep deprivation, depression, substance abuse and, for students who drive, more car accidents. Research shows the circadian rhythms of these older children yield their best sleep in the morning, and those organizations recommend starting middle and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The 8 a.m. goal for Pierson was a compromise, school officials have said, in recognition of the challenges associated with changing the time of day school starts.

The survey results were announced during Monday’s school board meeting, at which point school board president Diana Kolhoff asked Pierson principal Jeff Nichols — who along with Sag Harbor Elementary principal Matt Malone had presented data on athletics and transportation impacts on a later start time — if he was comfortable making a recommendation on moving the start time.

“It’s not an ‘I favor it’ or ‘I don’t favor it’ answer,” Mr. Nichols replied. “The research is pretty clear. However, the downside is there is an impact on the sports program, an impact on the transportation … and all these things have varying levels of impacts. It’s very difficult for me to come up with a yes-or-no answer.”

Board member Susan Lamontagne, who has been lobbying for later start times since before she was elected in 2016, likened the situation to the recently-concluded debate over a natural grass athletic field versus a synthetic turf field at Pierson.

“One of the things that’s interesting to me is our community looked at the evidence on grass versus turf and overwhelmingly rejected turf,” she said. “I would like this community to know that the research on later start is stronger and more definitive than the research on grass.”

On Tuesday, when asked for a response to the survey results, Ms. Kolhoff said in an email the board “will need more time to dig into the data provided by the survey.”

“But it’s important to keep in mind, this this is not a scientific poll,” she said. “Volunteer surveys are inherently biased and may not represent the true wishes of the population affected.”

The survey also yielded nine pages of anonymous comments on all sides of the issue, and some critical of the survey itself.

“I can find a study to support any situation. This is just a bunch of spoiled millennial parents with spoiled, whiney children,” one comment read. “Get out of bed and go to school. Later start will just have kids staying up later and in the end no change. I don’t want my kids leaving for school after I leave for work. They will definitely be late. They walk to school.”

Another read: “As it’s more important for middle students to be more alert during school, I believe the extra time would be beneficial for the kids. They have more homework than elementary and these stages are far more important for academic success.”

“It’s time to put the students’ health and well-being first. All students’ needs must be considered, not just those who participate in sports. The district will be negligent should it continue to ignore the advice of the experts who have studied this issue,” another comment read.

Still another: “Aren’t there more important issues the school should be dealing with?”

Of those taking the survey, 143 people, or about 37 percent, were parents of Pierson students. Fifty-seven, or about 15 percent, said they were parents of students at both Pierson and Sag Harbor Elementary School. Seventy-four Pierson staff members took the survey, representing about 19 percent of the respondents. However, of all respondents, only about 54 percent said they were “very familiar” with the research backing later school start times — a point that board member Chris Tice raised during Monday’s board meeting, during which the board watched a TED talk by a sleep expert who addressed this very issue.

“A lot of the comments reveal we have a community largely unfamiliar with the research,” Ms. Tice said. “This is the first meeting in the entire year where we’re really reflecting on the third-party research in this way. I’m concerned that we have a community that doesn’t even know why we’re doing this.”