By Kathryn G. Menu
The Sag Harbor School Board of Education has renewed efforts to delay the start time at Pierson Middle High School until 8 a.m., a move dozens of studies say would improve the mental and physical health of teens.
“During our goals setting meetings last summer one of these resounding common themes we kept hearing over and over was a desire to focus on not just academics but wellness as well,” said board president Diana Kolhoff on Wednesday. “One our board goals is focused on the Seven Dimensions of Wellness, and the research is pretty clear on this issue, and it’s something we could really gather around.”
According to Superintendent Katy Graves, the administration has been tasked with exploring ways to make that school board goal — starting school 25 minutes later than the current 7:35 a.m. opening at Pierson — a reality for the 2017-18 school year. It will be the second time in the past three years the district has looked at later start times for middle and high school students. In 2015 it pushed up the start time at Sag Harbor Elementary School and Pierson Middle High School by 10 minutes, to 8:45 a.m. and 7:35 a.m., respectively.
“We are going back to the drawing board and are going to look at the research that has been presented in the last three years, and what other districts have accomplished in that time,” she said on Wednesday morning. “We are also going to talk to all our stakeholders — everyone from our teachers and administrators, to bus drivers and parents, and our neighboring school districts — to see what new ideas we can bring to the board, and what kind of creative thinking we can offer them to make this a possibility.”
Sag Harbor will not be alone in exploring later start times. The Southampton School District is also looking to have students begin their day at the high school at 8 a.m., the high school principal, Dr. Brian Zahn said this week. Currently that school begins its classes at 7:31 a.m.
On Wednesday, Dr. Zahn said a committee had spent several months studying the issue and came to the conclusion that research shows students who start school later in the morning do better academically and see a reduction in risky behavior such as substance abuse and fewer disciplinary issues.
“We saw there was clearly a body of research that supports it,” he said, although he noted the district was unable to conceive a plan that could meet the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, and the Centers for Disease Control recommendations for a start time of no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
“But we were able to show we could, in theory, have a start time of 8 a.m.,” said Dr. Zahn, noting that would also require starting elementary school later in the morning — at 8:45 a.m. Dr. Zahn said the district is still exploring the impact of a later start time on child care, staff time, transportation, traffic and athletics.
“Now it is time to get feedback from the community and see if the adjustments that have to be made are something that outweigh the benefits of a later start or not,” he said.
Like Southampton, Sag Harbor will only pursue an 8 a.m. start time for now, said Ms. Kolhoff. “Certainly, 8:30 a.m. is ideal, but we have to recognize that sometimes we have to compromise and this is the compromise we can explore right now,” she said.
Board member Susan Lamontagne, the original champion for later start times, praised the board for moving toward the goal.
“Everyone is taking very seriously the social and emotional wellness of our children,” she said on Tuesday. “This is one of many things that needs to be done to support our students.”
Ms. Lamontagne called the news that Southampton was looking at a later start time “a potential game changer” for implementing later start times across the East End and possibly Suffolk County.
Dr. Lauren Hale, a professor at Stony Brook University who studies sleep and public health and is the editor-in-chief of Sleep Health, a medical journal, is one of several researchers working on a study that looks specifically at teens and school start times. The study, which is measuring data from 800 students nationwide, will be presented at the National Adolescent Sleep, Health and School Start Times Conference in Washington, D.C., in April. According to Dr. Hale, the research is abundant and clear.
From physical standpoint, including obesity and heart health, to psychological health, Dr. Hale said there are “a huge range of outcomes that benefit from sufficient sleep, and teens, in particular, are at risk because their physiology prevents them from going to sleep as early as their younger siblings. It’s a real mismatch between biology and society, and we are talking about teens that are developing a sense of independence, taking new risks, learning to drive, have cell phones, which doesn’t promote sleep.”
Morning sleep, added Dr. Hale, is when the deepest, REM sleep occurs. “Real learning is occurring during this end of night sleep,” she said. “So when you truncate morning sleep you are losing the most beneficial sleep of the cycle.”
Research shows later start times lead to better attendance, reduced tardiness, reduced drop-out rates, increases in test score performance and grades, as well as an improvement in mood, decreased depression rates, and potentially a decrease in substance abuse rates, said Dr. Hale.
“Sleep should be a pillar of one’s health agenda — if you want to get healthier, feel better and feel more productive, you need to get more significant sleep,” she said. “And teens are the most at risk of not getting the sleep they need.”