A group of parents is urging the School Committee to investigate changing the start time for middle and high school students, citing studies that show higher test scores and better attendance when the school day starts after 8 a.m.
The school day for Cole and EGHS students begins at 7:33 a.m. (though high school students don’t have to be at school until 8:05 a.m. on Wednesdays).
Parents have spoken during the public comment period of the past two School Committee meetings (public comment is reserved for those topics not on the agenda). At the meeting April 1, three parents spoke in favor of such a move and several other parents were there in solidarity.
One of the parents who spoke at the April 1 meeting was Katherine Sharkey, a sleep medicine doctor affiliated with Brown University who has two children in elementary school.
“The data are incontrovertible,” she said, noting that everything from learning to mood to obesity levels are affected by sleep.
“It just makes sense over all,” said parent Catherine Rodgers. “If the brain’s going to function better overall and it’s safer, it just makes sense.”
Rebecca Bliss, who has two elementary school age children, has helped to organize the parent group. In a recent interview, Bliss said she had been swayed by the science.
“Let’s capitalize on the opportunity to have their best learning times be when they are alert and engaged,” she said. “This is not recent stuff. It’s decades old.”
Bliss said she recognized making such a change would be challenging, but that it would be worth it.
“We’re really pleased with the schools,” she said. “All we want to do is work within the system and utilize existing resources both in the administration and in the community to make a great school district even stronger.”
Changing the start time for high school and middle school students would probably require shifting the start times for the elementary schools. Right now, buses have three runs: to Cole and EGHS first, then to Eldredge and Frenchtown, and finally Hanaford and Meadowbrook. The same buses, drivers and monitors cover all three routes.
Because the topic of pushing back start times was not on the agenda for either of the School Committee meetings where parents spoke, the panel did not discuss the idea, citing state law prohibitions against talking about things not on the agenda.
When asked if the topic would be put on an agenda soon, Chairman David Green was vague.
“I would expect it to come up for discussion at some point; hopefully soon,” Green said via email. “My expectation is that the discussion would be part of a more holistic look at the district school schedules as a whole, rather than just the high school. At a minimum, I would expect it to be a part of the output from our current strategic planning efforts.”
Barrington is the only other district to have had any discussion about later start times. A community forum was held two years ago but the district stopped short of a full-fledged study of the idea. According to Barrington Supt. Mike Messore, the district plans to undertake such a study but is working on implementing all-day kindergarten first.
“You really need to get down to schedules and to look at some research and the transportation issues,” said Messore. “And I would want to get some feedback from the community and teachers.”
He noted that some opposition to the idea came from high school athletes, who were worried about what later start times would mean for after-school sports.
The state Dept. of Education had no comment on the issue.
“Districts have the autonomy to make their own decisions about school starting times,” said RIDE spokesman Elliot Krieger, “keeping in mind what’s in the best interest of the students in their community.”
He said RIDE kept no data on the school start times.
The EG parents pushing for change are not daunted that East Greenwich might be the first to make such a switch.
“Our community needs to be a leader,” said Katherine Sharkey. “If not us, who; if not now, when?”
As for what teachers might be thinking, at least one said she thought the idea had value.
“The high school kids come in like zombies in the morning,” said an EGHS teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “And most of them have a coffee in their hand. Felicia’s would go out of business if it wasn’t for the high school. They need it. All the statistics tell you they should be switching with the elementary level.”
You can see a random sampling of East Greenwich High School students talk about their sleep behavior in the video attached here.