Students at Watertown High School and Watertown Middle School will likely have more time to sleep in beginning the fall of 2018, and that’s a good thing, school officials say.
This week, the School Committee heard a presentation from a committee asked to look at the mechanisms for starting school early and what problems could arise from changing the start time at Watertown’s secondary schools.
Last year the school’s Wellness Committee recommended that the district move to an 8:30 a.m. start time for middle and high school based on research about teens sleep habits and circadian rhythms, also known as the body clock.
“Teen circadian rhythms shift later with the onset of puberty and causes them to stay alert until about 10:30 to 10:45 (at night),” said Watertown MiddleWatertown Middle School Principal Kimo Carter, who chaired the School Start Time Implementation Task Force. “The change happens as the get older, it just happens – they can’t control it.”
Teens need about nine-and-a-quarter hours of sleep, Carter said, which would mean waking up at about 7:45 a.m. if they go to sleep at 10:30 p.m. Many students do not get that amount, or even eight hours, Carter said, and research shows that is partly due to the early start time of school.
“Teens sleep less than heigh hours a night,” Carter said. “Lack of sleep leads to a whole lot of issues: tendencies toward depression, obesity, substance abuse, increased car accidents and disciplinary issues.”
The later start time would increase the number of students getting 8 hours of sleep from 33 percent to 60 percent, Carter said.
Watertown Public Schools officials are looking at two scenarios, but in both the middle and high schools would start at 8:30 a.m. and the high school would end at 3 p.m. and the middle school at 3:05 p.m., Carter said. Currently the high school starts at 7:55 a.m. and the middle school begins at 7:40 a.m.
In the first scenario, all three elementary schools would start at 8:15 a.m. (the same time for Cunniff and Lowell and 15 minutes earlier for Hosmer) and end at 2:30 p.m. In scenario 2, the elementaries would start at 7:50 a.m. and end at 2:05 p.m.
Issues include school bus schedules, before and after school programs, childcare and pickup of elementary school students, after-school activities including sports and after school jobs.
The first scenario would mean changing the way school buses are run. Right now, the same bus does a run to the Middle School first and then to Hosmer. This would not be possible with start times just 15 minutes apart, and the cost for another bus would be $174,000. The elementary schools would get out at the same time, so there would be little change for childcare and after school programs.
In the second scenario, the buses would not be an issue for the district, but the earlier start at the elementary schools would mean significant changes to the schedules of elementary school students, school starting 20 minutes earlier.
“Before school activities shorter and after school programs would be significantly longer,” Carter said. “Costs would rise 10 percent for the Watertown Extended Day program.”
Families of children who attend other after-school programs offered around town would also likely see a price increase, he added.
Carter said the group had some concerns about “latch key kids” who go home to an empty home after school, and scenario 2 would increase the time at home for elementary school students.
The later dismissal for the high school would mean less time for homework after school. Plus it would push back the time that after school activities, including sports, would start and end later. All schools in the Middlesex League were asked to look at changing start times later by the fall of 2018, so schedules will likely line up, but the Task Force did not recommend having students leave school early for away competitions, as has been done in other districts, Carter said.
Students who work after school would have less time to earn money, Carter said.
For teachers at the middle and high schools, their commute could be longer because they are coming in closer to the traditional rush hour.
Working with Parents and Students
If the start times are to change in the fall of 2018, the School Committee must make a decision by October or early November 2017, said School Committee Chairman John Portz. He recommended that School Committee members discuss the issue more at their August meeting and then have meetings to get input in September – one the high school, one at the middle school and one for the elementary schools. A proposal would then come forward in October and be voted at the November School Committee meeting.
Carter said the district will have to have a lot of communications with parents and students about the change.
“We need to work with families that need to plan their schedules and and really think about what they need,” Carter said. “We really need to engage our students and let them know why it is important to get enough sleep and why we are delaying the start of school.”
School Committee member Eilieen Hsu-Balzer said she thinks it is important to get input and support form other organizations in town, such as the Boys & Girls Club. Town Council President Mark Sideris said he thinks the general public should also be involved in the discussion.
The earlier start time at elementary schools could be hard for some families, said School Committee member Candace Miller. The town has a higher than average rate of absenteeism and tardiness, Miller said, and the earlier start time may make make that more difficult at the elementary schools.
Interim Superintendent John Brackett said other districts have started to go down this road, too, and Watertown should share ideas and learn from their experiences. Also, the school unions will also have to be brought into the discussion, he said.
Most of all, he said, the district should start the communication with parents early in the process.
“One thing we heard from everyone – parents, staff – is the more time the have to adjust child care, commute times, the more acceptable any change will be,” Brackett said.