SOUTH PORTLAND — Armed with a survey showing that teachers, parents and students support moving to later start times at the city’s middle schools and high school, the School Board voted Monday to create a committee that will make recommendations for moving back the start of school for adolescent students.
The board voted 7-0 in support of the special committee, which followed a prior workshop where the board heard the report of a local study group, created last fall to look at the science and data behind the nationwide move toward allowing teens more time to sleep in the morning before heading to class.
South Portland High School starts at 7:30 a.m., and the middle schools start at 7:55 a.m.
Several organizations, including the American Medical Association and the National Association of School Nurses, along with the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have endorsed later school start times, recommending that schools not start any earlier than 8:30 a.m. for teenagers.
According to several studies, teens function best when they get at least eight to nine hours of sleep per night. In its report, South Portland’s start times study group said “Teens are biologically programmed to stay up later and sleep later, but early school start times work against their (internal) clocks.”
The study group also said that not getting enough sleep can result in anxiety and depression, poorer attention and poorer problem solving skills, poorer academic performance and poorer impulse control, and a low tolerance for frustration.
Not getting enough sleep could also lead to reduced immune function, changes in hormones that regulate appetite, poorer food choices, and even increased sports injuries.
The study group also found that school districts that have changed to later start times at their middle and high schools are seeing direct benefits.
For instance, the group the Westbrook School Department implemented a 20-minute shift in start times for its teens in 2012 and has seen “a significant decrease in tardiness and teachers (have) reported students were more alert.”
The Scarborough School Department is also “actively working on a plan for an 8:30 a.m. start time” for the 2017-2018 academic year, the study group told the board.
At the July 11 meeting, parent John Heffernan, who has created a citizen advocacy group pushing for later start times, said he was “very much in favor of changing school start times” and wanted to “speak up in favor of continued exploration of this goal for the health of our students.”
The survey conducted by the School Department showed that 84 percent of students at South Portland High School reported getting fewer than eight hours of sleep a night.
The survey also showed that 52 percent of “school staff agree or strongly agree that we should make our middle school and high school start times later.”
In addition, about 63 percent of the parents surveyed also agreed or strongly agreed with the concept of later start times for the city’s adolescents.
Board Chairman Dick Matthews said he and Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin would work together to appoint the special committee.
Some of the issues the panel will consider include transportation and after-school activities. In its report, the study group said it could cost the School Department an additional $100,000 to combine the middle school and high school bus routes, which would include hiring four part-time bus drivers.
Also at its meeting Monday, the board approved a request from Kunin to hire a new, full-time nurse for at least the upcoming school year in order to deal with the large number of students requiring daily medical care at the various schools.
The board also got an update from the middle school facilities committee, which is looking into the possibility of the state or the city funding construction of a new, combined or redeveloped middle school.
Assistant Superintendent Kathy Germani said that “absolutely no determination has been made and we’re still at the very, very initial stages.”
She also said the middle school committee would not make any recommendations until it finds out where South Portland stands on the state’s school construction funding list, which should occur sometime in early September.