2017-11-03 / Front Page

Cape to explore later start

By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH – While the neighboring the Scarborough and South Portland school districts have made the changes to when school starts, the Cape Elizabeth School Board decided last week to investigate the change of start times at Pond Cove Elementary School, Cape Elizabeth Middle School and Cape Elizabeth High School.

On behalf of the school board, Chairman Elizabeth Scifres asked interim Cape Elizabeth Superintendent Howard Colter to examine when other schools in the area start school, especially those schools that also send students to Portland Arts and Technology High School (PATHS) and those schools that compete against Cape Elizabeth in Maine Principal Association athletic contests.

“We’d like to initiate the data collection at this point so we can begin looking at this,” Scifres said at the Oct. 24 school board meeting.

If possible, Colter said it is important for Cape Elizabeth to coordinate start times with the other 17 schools that send students to PATHS.

“There is a need for the school districts that feed into Westbrook (Vocational Center) and PATHS to coordinate so those schools know when students will be arriving so they can lay out their instructional day,” Colter said.

While the conversation in Cape Elizabeth is just starting, the topic of when the right time to start school is anything but new.

“The discussion of when to start school in terms of student health has been around for some time now. I can go back at least 10 years and remember conversations then about optimal time to come to school,” Colter said.

There has been a push locally and nationally to delay the start of school for middle school and high school students. Research suggest high schools and middle schools start too early and don’t give teenagers enough time to sleep and be prepared for an early school day. The National Sleep Center indicates chronic lack of sleep can lead to lack of focus and inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, aggressive or inappropriate behavior, unhealthy eating and contribute to illness, weight gain and other physical and mental health issues. The American Academy of Pediatrics said because of the sleep cycles of students – teenagers especially – middle schools and high schools should not start before 8:30 a.m. The American Sleep Association advises school start time should be closer to 9 a.m.

Because of this, school board member John Voltz said a “common model out there” is to have high school and middle school start after 8:30 a.m. That is the model that Scarborough School Board members agreed to in late April. The new start times (8 a.m. for K-5, 9 a.m. for middle school and 8:50 a.m. for high school) will begin next school year. A school start time implementation committee was formed to discuss ways to support families, students and staff as schools transition to new start times.

While the change in school start times in Scarborough are set for the 2018-2019 school year, South Portland made the change effective this school year. In January, the South Portland Board of Education decided to push back the start of high school 40 minutes to 8:10 a.m. and the start of middle school 35 minutes to 8:30 a.m. after months of discussion.

“We don’t have any hard data. We will get that as the year progresses. Anecdotally, kids are more on time for their first class. The tardies have gone down somewhat and kids are more awake,” said South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin.

The change in school start time, which delayed the dismissal of high school to 2:25 p.m. and middle school to 2:45 p.m., has resulted in a “modest impact” to after-school athletics, he said.

“Since we are all looking into this, (school athletic directors) have adjusted the schedules accordingly. It’s become a bit of a challenge in late fall because we don’t have lit fields,” Kunin said.

The alteration of school start and end times have forced a compressed busing schedule, especially in the afternoon when there is only 40 minutes between the end of high school and the end of elementary school with the release of middle school in between.

How changing the schedule would impact after-school activities and busing are two items school officials in Scarborough have been looking into. Board of education members in Scarborough reached the decision to change the start times after a year and a half of discussions with parents, students, school staff and medical professionals.

Colter expects a similar conversation in Cape Elizabeth.

“I will go back to the board after I have collected all the data and see what they want to do,” Colter said. “It is the type of thing, if done as thorough as it should, it will need to include public input, parent input and teacher input.”

Cape Elizabeth has several examples to follow. Aside from South Portland, other school districts that have changed start times include Westbrook (in 2012), as well as Saco and Biddeford, which both made the change for the 2016-2017 school year.

Aside from initiating the collection of school start time data, the school board also discussed long-range goals for the district, especially around improving the climate and culture in schools. Scifres and school board members Barbara Powers and Heather Altenburg shared with fellow board members the take-aways from their listening tour last June in which they invited staff from the department’s three schools to informally met with them to discuss topics of concern in the schools.

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