Sag Harbor Schools Later Start Draws Critics

Pierson principal Jeff Nichols said the district will take a new, robust approach to exploring later start times for Sag Harbor Schools. Christine Sampson photo
Pierson principal Jeff Nichols said the district will take a new, robust approach to exploring later start times for Sag Harbor Schools. Christine Sampson photo

By Christine Sampson

When Pierson Middle-High School principal Jeff Nichols began a presentation titled “Road Map to Later Start Time” during Monday night’s Sag Harbor School Board meeting, some in attendance felt a distinct sense of deja-vu.

As Mr. Nichols laid out the steps the administration is planning to take over the next two months to revisit moving the start times of Pierson Middle-High School and Sag Harbor Elementary School, audience members murmured to each other and board members Stephanie Bitis and Susan Lamontagne jumped into the conversation.

“Wasn’t this all done already?” Ms. Bitis asked.

“It was,” Ms. Lamontagne said.

They were referring to the process the district went through back in 2014, when a series of eight meetings on the topic held over six weeks resulted in six possible options for later start times. The end result of that process was the ten-minute time change for the 2015-16 school year, but the school board remained dedicated, through its goal-setting process, to further examining the issue.

Mr. Nichols said the district is planning a new, robust investigation. He said it would include using Syntax Communications, the district’s public relations firm, to survey parents as it did with the Stella Maris referendum.

When he was met with criticism, however, board member Chris Tice described the previous conversations as “very generic and top-level,” and said the new approach planned out by Mr. Nichols and Matt Malone, the elementary school principal, “may unearth some opportunities.” Superintendent Katy Graves said this time around, the district has better data to back it up.

“When we started last time, I was only six weeks on the job and [school business administrator] Jennifer Buscemi was only four weeks in,” Ms. Graves said. “At the time, we had just started collecting data on the bus runs and people were questioning us, saying, ‘Is this real data?’ Since then we’ve been very careful. …We’re not guessing this time.”

Research conducted over the last several years has shown that for teenage students, whose circadian rhythms make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m., early-morning school start times negatively impact their health and cognitive abilities. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said high schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., with the American Psychological Association, the Harvard School of Public Health and other academic and professional organizations providing supporting research. Later-morning start times have been shown to increase academic performance, decrease school absences, tardiness and disciplinary matters, and reduce teen car accidents, substance abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Challenges remain, though; most notably the scheduling conflict that emerges with after-school sports and the academic support period at the end of the school day at Pierson.

Ms. Bitis and parents who spoke at the meeting claimed it would affect practices and eat into teams’ travel times for away games – which often take the students to places like Port Jefferson and Greenport. They said it would also impact athletes who take part in shared sports programs at neighboring schools. Certain outdoor sports, like tennis and soccer, rely on limited afternoon daylight hours to play when fields and courts don’t have outdoor lighting.

Ms. Bitis insisted that Section XI, the organizational entity that governs Suffolk County school athletics, “will not move” to accommodate Pierson athletics.

Indeed, the health of the sports programs was on parents’ minds on Monday night, when several of them spoke out against later start times.

“You are putting our student athletes at a disadvantage. . . Section XI will never change,” said Don O’Brien, a parent of two Sag Harbor students who teaches physical education and coaches soccer in a nearby district. “When you show up late for that contest, not only does the cost of the officials rise, but the cost of the buses goes up also, and then our kids get home later, and they have less time to do homework. . . I’ve lived here for 15 years now, and all the parents I’ve spoken to are absolutely against anything later than a 7:30 a.m. start time.”

On Tuesday, Donald Webster, the executive director of Section XI, said there is in fact some measure of flexibility because Section XI does not mandate particular starting times for athletic contests. It’s the “home” school that sets the game time, Mr. Webster said. It’s up to the home school to work with the visiting school if that visiting school is traveling a great distance. It also depends on the sport, the facility, and the other needs of the schools in question.

“If you start a field hockey or soccer game at 4:30 during the week, you’re probably not going to get the game in,” Mr. Webster said. “But we don’t tell them, ‘This is the time you must play.’ The one thing we’d have to be conscious of is daylight savings time and things like that. If you start too late, particularly during the fall, you’re just not going to get the games in unless you’ve got lights. More schools have started to look at later times if they have lights or a turf field where weather isn’t as much of an issue.”

During Monday’s school board meeting, Rich Perello, a parent of four, opposed the later start time because of what he said is “a disconnect” between the school and the faculty and “a lack of support” for the sports programs in Sag Harbor. He also said starting school later would amount to “coddling our children.”

“I can’t take it anymore. No one wants to see their kid struggle,” he said. “What are we preparing them for? There are a lot of people who feel this way and it’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Mary Anne Miller, a parent of a four-year varsity athlete, said a later start time might mean athletes would have difficulty thriving in the shared sports programs. She also urged the district to preserve the academic support period at the end of the day.

“Please go slowly and make sure you inform the community along the way,” she said.

Helen Roussel, a parent of three, said she would prefer her children “not to have to get up at the crack of dawn.” She asked the district also consider the timing of lunch periods during the process.

“My 10-year-old has lunch at 10:15 in the morning. I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I’m hoping in your survey that it’s going to include moving the lunch time. I can’t imagine if you’ll have them start later you’ll still have them have lunch at 10 o’clock.”

Elsewhere on the South Fork, the Southampton School District has decided to implement a later start time for its schools: The secondary schools will move from a 7:31 a.m. start time to 8 a.m., while the elementary school will be moved 20 minutes later, to 8:40 a.m. Southampton High School principal Dr. Brian Zahn said Wednesday it was a decision reached after 10 weeks of meetings with a committee of parents, teachers, administrators and staff members. The change will start in the 2018-19 school year because some of the district’s administrators – including a new transportation director – will be “in transition” next year, Dr. Zahn said. They’ve already mapped out sports solutions. He said he gleaned some information from the conversations Sag Harbor had three years ago after attending some of those meetings.

“That did help formulate some of the direction and saved some time for us,” Dr. Zahn said. “I heard some of the sports implications. So it actually did help. But was it a driving force? No, we were doing it by looking at the benefit to our students.”

Follow-up presentations are scheduled for the April 3 and May 8 board meetings. Ms. Graves said the possibility exists for the district to change start times for the 2017-18 school year, even if there are financial implications.

“Everybody talks about what we would sacrifice if we move the start times later,” Ms. Lamontagne, who ran for the school board last year on a platform that included later school start times, said on Tuesday. “Well, we’re sacrificing something now. We’re paying the price in children’s health. The research is very clear. I would hope that we can find the way to do it that works for as many people as possible, and certainly works for the sports program too.”