Dresden District Contemplates a Later Start to the School Day

  • Hanover High School senior Robert Putnam, of Cornish, N.H. runs through football warm ups on Nov. 2, 2018 in Hanover, N.H. Hanover High is now beginning an assessment of its daily schedule. Putnam is on the student council. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/5/2018 10:00:01 PM
Modified: 11/5/2018 10:00:06 PM

When Hanover High School students began contemplating a later start to the school day, many of them expressed concern about the impact on after-school sports and proposed moving sports practices to the early morning hours.

It seemed like a great idea — until the irony sunk in.

“One of the things that we heard over and over again, kids kept saying if they had more time in the morning, they’d have more time to do sports then,” said David Sobel, chairman of the Dresden School District Late School Start Committee, which just finished investigating the possibility of starting the school day later. “But if you look at it, the point is to give these kids the opportunity to sleep more.”

Sleep is a popular topic in school communities these days. Dresden is just one of numerous districts around New Hampshire and Vermont that have been grappling with how to afford students a bit more shut-eye, in light of research demonstrating profound benefits connected to a later start to the school day.

But while there tends to be widespread support for a more teen-friendly schedule — and a few districts have successfully adjusted their start times — educators are finding that it’s not an easy change to make. Such was the case with the Dresden committee, which concluded last month that the time wasn’t right to try to implement a later start.

“While the science behind this is very compelling, the complexity of what this would entail was really far greater, to be perfectly honest, than what I had anticipated,” Sobel said.

The school day begins at 8 a.m. at the four schools in Hanover and Norwich — the Bernice A. Ray School, in Hanover, the Marion Cross School in Norwich, the Frances C. Richmond Middle School in Hanover and Hanover High School.

That’s later than many area schools but earlier than the start time increasingly recommended by health professionals. Responding to a growing body of research, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others, have all recommended an 8:30 a.m. or later start time for high schoolers.

But making that 30-minute adjustment would have consequences that reach beyond the school’s walls, the committee found. Along with sports teams and other extra-curricular organizations, the change could affect teachers, families, the transportation company, even area employers, commuters and public works departments. Because the high school is in the center of town, unlike many schools that are outside the main hub, school traffic has a significant impact on the surrounding area, such that the town plans its construction projects according to the school schedule, Sobel said.

None of these complications is prohibitive, committee members said, and the committee’s decision not to move forward does not constitute rejection of the idea.

“I want to be very clear that the board is keeping an open mind,” said Sobel, a Hanover resident who serves as vice chairman of the Dresden School Board. “None of our constituents said categorically that this could not work,” he said. “Much of the feedback, anecdotally, was that this is a good idea with qualifications ... I think it needs to be looked at in a more total perspective.”

The late-start committee, which included teachers, administrators, parents and students, was charged with conducting a preliminary investigation. The committee did not send out formal surveys or consider a specific proposal.

The topic could very likely come back into play as Hanover High School begins a year-long evaluation of its daily schedule, said Principal Justin Campbell, who added that he can attest to the bleary-eyed state of some of the students during first period. The first committee meeting for that purpose will take place within the next few weeks, he said.

“The task will be to look at how we spend our time each day and to make a recommendation to the superintendent and school board,” Campbell said. “We want to look carefully at our priorities.”

Many people feel that a later start to the school day should be among those priorities.

“Sleep is fundamental,” said Linda Addante, a psychiatrist, mother of six and former Dresden School Board member who currently serves as advisor to the Hanover High School student council. “The whole idea is to respond to what students need to do their best and be their healthiest.”

Proposals to change the school start time date back at least six years, said Addante. Though her own kids didn’t have much trouble getting up in the morning during their high school years, Addante said she regularly deals with sleep-deprived, stressed-out teens, many of whom are enthusiastic about the idea of starting the school day later.

Not everyone agrees, though. Robert Putnam, a senior from Cornish, often gets home late at night after participating in various activities and sports practices and then making the 40-minute drive. He’d love to get more sleep, but he doesn’t think a later start time would net him any benefit.

“I think it would just make everything later,” said Putnam, stopping for snacks with some teammates at the Co-op before football practice last week.

Besides, said Putnam, who’s also a member of the student council, teachers generally understand that students are tired during first period and try to ease them into the school day.

There’s a fair amount of science, however, on the side of those advocating for a post-8:30 start.

High school students who start their school day at 8 a.m. or earlier have lower academic performance, on average, and are at a higher risk for obesity, mental health and substance abuse problems and motor vehicle accidents than high school students who start their school day at 8:30 or later, said John Randolph, a neuropsychologist and Hanover High School parent who presented research findings to the late start committee earlier this year.

The reason: Teenage brains are different from children’s and adults’. It’s simply harder for teenagers to get the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night if they’re forced to get up early. “There’s an altered sleep drive in adolescence,” Randolph explained. “Adolescents are not able to get to sleep as early as they could when they were younger.”

Other factors such as after-school jobs, use of electronic devices and heavy homework loads contribute to the problem, but research indicates that biology is at the heart of the later-start movement.

A 2014 study conducted by the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota found a strong correlation between school start times and the average amount of sleep students reported getting per night. About 50 percent of students in the study who began their school day at 8 a.m. reported sleeping eight hours or more per night, compared with 57-60 percent of students attending schools that began at 8:35 a.m. and 67-percent of those attending schools with an 8:55 start time. (The percentage dropped to just 34 percent for students beginning their school day at 7:30.)

In other words, 30 to 60 minutes could make a measurable difference.

“When I hear ‘late start,” I hear it as an approach that might be useful in reducing stress,” Addante said. “I think these tenets of brain health are something that we need to give attention to.”

Sleep deprivation is remarkably similar to intoxication in impairing the ability to drive, she said. It’s also a major impediment to acquiring and retaining new information because it drastically affects a person’s ability to focus, and when it becomes chronic — as it often does — is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other diseases.

Many of the high school students she works with really want to live healthy lifestyles, but find that ideal challenging, she added.

The benefits of a late start are less clear in younger children, Sobel said. Any group that takes up the task of studying and implementing a later start time will need to consider whether to make the change at the high school level only or at all Hanover-Norwich schools. Currently, students from all four schools are bused in together. If the high school alone were to change its schedule, the transportation company has indicated that it could do a “split run,” transporting elementary and middle school students first and then going back for the high school students — but this would come with an increased cost. Such a change might also create problems for some parents who rely on older siblings to provide rides or supervision for younger siblings, Sobel said.

According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average school start time in Vermont was 8:05 in 2015, right around the national average of 8:03. The average start time in New Hampshire was 7:42 at the time the report was issued. However, those numbers appear to be changing, according to information gathered by the Dresden committee. Several districts, including Keene, Portsmouth, Oyster River and Interlakes in New Hampshire, and Brattleboro, Vt., have recently changed their start times or are in the process of doing so.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.

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