Scarborough petition: Reconsider school start-time changes

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SCARBOROUGH — An online petition wants officials to re-evaluate revised school start times scheduled to take effect in the fall.

The change.org petition, signed by more than 550 people as of Thursday morning, Jan. 18, contends there is a more balanced approach to be considered than the one that will have high school students starting at 8:50 a.m., middle school students at 9 a.m., and elementary school students at 8 a.m.

But School Board members and Superintendent of Schools Julie Kukenberger said the plan will be implemented on the first day of school.

Classes at the high school now begin at 7:35 a.m. The middle school starts at 7:45 a.m., students in grades 3-5 start at 8:20 a.m., and kindergarten through second-graders start at 8:50 a.m.

Petitioners’ concerns include longer bus rides, earlier pick-up times for young students, and the need for additional after-school care.

The School Board voted to implement the changes last April, after considering data that suggests high school students with later start times have reduced automobile accidents, truancy and absenteeism; improved mental health, and lower rates of substance use. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Dr. Peter Amann, a Scarborough family practioner with children in grades 7, 9 and 12, said data also that suggests later start times reduce obesity and produce higher attendance, among other benefits.

“It’s inconvenient, but there is dramatic evidence to support it,” Amann said.

Parent Sarah Crossman, who has children in first and fifth grades, said “This is a good shift. it honors the developmental needs of older students and younger students,” while the existing schedule doesn’t serve any population well.

Crossman’s daughter, who is in first grade, wakes up at 6 a.m., but doesn’t get to school until 9 a.m. She said she is well rested, but then, halfway through the day, becomes tired. Crossman said she would prefer an earlier time so her daughter can have class time while she is still well rested.

She conceded there are constraints the town must deal with, including its size – 54 square miles – making transportation difficult. But she said change is inevitable and the town must focus on how to adapt. Crossman said challenges with before- and after-school care already exist, and the decision-making process was thoughtful, with adequate communication and information about meetings and discussions.

School Board Chairwoman Donna Beeley, a retired principal who taught primary school for nearly 40 years, said Wednesday she is optimistic and hopeful the plan will work for all students in the district. She said the board was willing to give staff and parents a year and a half to prepare for the changes, and some logistics are still being worked out, including  middle school athletic schedules, which will be impacted by later release times. .

Scarborough will likely be the school with the latest release times in the state, according to Kukenberger.

Jillian Trapini, a petition signer and mother of four children, including a second-grader, said she started speaking against the changes when they were first proposed in 2015.

Although she supports a later start time for high school students, Trapini is concerned about how younger students will be affected, especially those who will be waiting for buses as early as 6:40 a.m. She said the board’s action was not thoughtful, and to her, seemed to garner only mediocre support that has created additional problems.

Trapini said the 50-minute change is too drastic for young students, and she would be more supportive of a 25- or 30-minute change. Trapini also said longer bus rides that will take a toll on children’s physical activity, and on family time and child-care arrangements.

She said some children may have 10-hour days that include school and after-school care.

“This is not an experiment,” Trapini said. “You can’t experiment with our children.”

Dr. Jennifer Jubulis, a pediatrician and mother of a first-grader, said she also supports a delayed high school start time, but said the changes to younger grades is something she cannot support. There are benefits for later start times for adolescents, but there is no hard data to support earlier times are beneficial to younger students, she said.

Jubulis said the board’s decision was made with the best of intentions, but the geographical makeup of the town makes bus pick-up times for younger students too early and reduces their sleep schedule, which can be detrimental to behavior and learning.

In her experience with her daughter, Jubulis said her bedtime at 8 p.m. after day care and dinner leaves an hour and a half for family time. She said she wants the board to re-evaluate its decision with respect to logistics and consequences.

Beeley, however, said from her teaching experience, younger students in kindergarten through fifth grade are more available to learning in the morning, and get tired after the lunch hour.

After the board approved the change for the 2018-2019 calendar, the School Department created a School Start Time Implementation Planning Committee. The committee, co-facilitated by Kukenberger and high school health teacher Mary Record, includes parents, staff and School Board members on both sides of the debate.

At the first meeting, members discussed why sleep matters and reviewed the AAP recommendations for hours of sleep from infancy to ages 18. They also reviewed research that indicates sleep deprivation has been linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, increased alcohol use, crashes, athletic injuries and obesity, as well as poor academic and athletic performance.

Kukenberger, who was hired in July 2016, after the board had already started exploring new start times, said the board clearly identified changing school start times as a priority when she interviewed for the position.

She said ultimately she would like parents and school staff to think of how to best support each other, instead of strategizing about how to overturn the decision.

Kukenberger, who has a 4-year-old daughter, said she understands parents’ concerns about family time, and realizes the changes will require adjustments. She said she understands the overall complexity of the change, including altered traffic patterns, after-school care, and other considerations, but ultimately the revised schedule is the right thing to do.

“We know better,” she said, referring to the data, “so we have to do better.”

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext., 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. 

Scarborough High School students might have the latest school start times in the state next fall, unless a petition to reconsider the plan is successful.

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