Back to school: Times are changing in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Public school students get to sleep a little later this year.

New start times designed to improve students’ health beginning this fall means high schoolers will start 40 minutes later than last year, classes will start 35 minutes later for the middle school and five minutes later for elementary schools.
The new high school hours will be from 8:10 a.m.-2:25 p.m.; middle schoolers will attend from 8:30 a.m.-2:45 p.m., and elementary students from 9:05 a.m.-3:05 p.m.
The changes will officially begin on Sept. 5, the first day of the new school year.
Grades kindergarten and 10 – 12 begin classes on Sept. 6.
The School Department has also launched a redesigned website, www.spsd.org.
Ken Kunin, the superintendent of schools, said the new website will “give parents more timely and accurate information.”
According to health-care experts, the benefits of later start times include lower rates of obesity and depression, fewer car accidents, and teens who are less likely to engage in risky behavior, such as alcohol use.
Kunin said the goal behind later school times is giving children more time to sleep and a chance to eat breakfast at home or have it at school.
“We hope it gets students better rested,” he said. “We think in the long run it will support student achievement. … Research has shown positive results in other schools that have made the change, including some districts in Maine.”
Kunin said in order to make the change possible bus stops had to compressed, particularly for the middle and high school students.
Students are eligible to take a bus if they live outside a certain radius of the school, which is 1 mile for kindergarten through grade five and 1 1/2 miles for students attending grades six through 12.
“We really do believe we can make it work,” Kunin said. “It will have some bumps, which is typically at the beginning of the year – not to have some things not run as exactly as planned.”
He said the transportation department used computer models to test bus routes and bus drivers also took to the roads to make sure the routes would work.
After-school activities will remain the same, according to the school chief.
“We didn’t want to change school start times only to have early morning practices,” Kunin said. “We didn’t want the later school start times to move activities before school.”
Kunin said activities that were scheduled to take place early in the day will still be held before school starts, including hockey practice, which is subject to ice availability.
Kunin said there may be one or two games that will cause children to be dismissed early, but for the most part, the new schedule will not cause changes. He acknowledged that students may occasionally be dismissed early for a long-distance away game or similar circumstances. However, early dismissal would require the superintendent’s approval.
Mahoney Middle School teacher and parent John Heffernan and his wife Heather Fairfield helped lead the change over school start times.
Heffernan said he has heard a mostly positive response from parents and students, but acknowledged not everyone is happy with the change.
Most of his students were excited when he shared the news with them after the change was approved, Heffernan said, but some were concerned because they will end the school day a little later.
“I hope people are understanding. This is something we are convinced that will be in the best interest of students and families, but it may take some adjustments and time,” said Heffernan. “I think really it will improve the quality of their lives … some of it will be obvious in terms of mood, disposition, energy levels and a lot of it won’t be obvious,” citing reduced obesity, depression and anxiety.
Heffernan said there will be people who love the change and others who don’t, but he predicts that a year from now, people will be asking why the school department didn’t they do it sooner, calling the change beneficial for the vast majority of children and families.
Fairfield is pleased, but she would have liked to see the high school change to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation, which is no earlier than 8:30 a.m. She called the change “a step in the right direction.”
“We do understand the challenges of moving it until later,” Fairfield said. “We couldn’t quite get to 8:30 a.m. without doing a more drastic change – without flipping the elementary school calendar …”
She also noted it was “incredible that this could be done without cost.” 

 Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

Mahoney Middle School in South Portland, where the new school year begins with a school day that will run from 8:30 a.m.-2:45 p.m.

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