A few minutes more

Seacoast school districts consider later start times

Seacoast middle- and high-school students hoping to catch a little extra sleep before school may get their wish — but probably not for another few years.

School boards in Portsmouth and the Oyster River school district, which encompasses Durham, Lee, and Madbury, are in the early stages of considering plans for later start times at their middle and high schools. According to medical experts, later start times hold a wealth of benefits for students. However, local officials say shifting start times is not as simple as it sounds.

“There are lots of tendrils,” said Portsmouth School Board member Patrick Ellis, chair of the board’s late start time subcommittee.

According to Ellis, board members and city officials have been talking about later start times since as far back as 2008, and the board did research and conducted surveys. But the proposal “fell off the table” when then-superintendent Robert Lister retired and the board had to search for a replacement.

The current discussion began in 2014. That summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a study recommending middle- and high-school students start school later. According to the AAP study, students with school start times earlier than 8:30 a.m. aren’t receiving “optimal levels of sleep” (between 8.5 and 9.5 hours), which can lead to problems with physical and mental health and academic performance. According to the Center for Disease Control, two out of three high-school students in the United States get less than eight hours of sleep a night. Adolescents who don’t get enough sleep are at greater risk of obesity, depression, engaging in risky behaviors, and performing poorly in school.

That report reignited discussion at the local level, Ellis said. But, as the board began to look at the issue, the members found that changing start times can have far-reaching effects. Because of that, Ellis said, a firm start-time plan won’t be finalized until October of this year.

The first wrinkle was getting the timing right for a plan. Portsmouth receives students from Rye, Greenland, New Castle, and Newington. Those towns finalize their school budgets for the following year in March, while Portsmouth finalizes its budget in June. According to Ellis, if later start times have a financial impact, such as more bus routes, those towns have to know well in advance.

“We wanted to slow the process down a bit … and make a firm decision by October, so it’s right at the start of (their) budget-making process,” he said.

There are plenty of other considerations. Moving back start times for high-school and middle-school students could affect when elementary-school students start their day. Right now, middle- and high-school students start school at 7:30 a.m.; elementary students in Portsmouth begin their day at 8:20 a.m. Any changes could affect bus schedules, and could mean the city has to fund more bus routes.

After-school sports and extracurricular activities also become more complicated to schedule. Ellis said that the board has already heard from families in which older students act as after-school caregivers for younger siblings or have after-school jobs. Later start times could change those dynamics, too.

“(Sports, extracurricular activities, and after-school jobs) are some of the larger issues that have been brought up, and it’s why we didn’t want to be nonchalant about this.”
— Portsmouth School Board member Patrick Ellis

“Those are some of the larger issues that have been brought up, and it’s why we didn’t want to be nonchalant about this,” Ellis said.

Ellis said the Portsmouth School Board has already surveyed parents, teachers, and students in the district and is aiming to host a community forum in early April.

“We’d be able to present some of the science behind why this makes so much sense, as well as talk about what other communities have done,” he said.

In the Oyster River School District, school board chair Thomas Newkirk said the board has been discussing later start times in earnest since the spring of 2015, when a group of residents advocating for a later start time asked the board to take up the issue.

“The board had an advisory committee take it up in the fall (of 2015), and it made presentations to us and did a survey and came up with some options. It’s in the board’s hands right now,” he said.

Newkirk said the board will host a public workshop on start times on Thursday, March 3 at 6 p.m. at Oyster River High School in Durham. It’s the first in what will likely be a long series of meetings, according to Newkirk.

“We anticipate setting up forums to get input from the community. Start times affect so many things,” he said. “In terms of a timeline, we haven’t set one, and my own sense is (changes) won’t be for the 2016-2017 school year, but possibly for the fall after.”