School Start Time Study Group composition approved – big and ambitious (Updated)

by beth on October 24, 2018

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This week the Combined School Committees finalized the structure of the new Start Time Study Group. The group will recommend potential fixes to concerns about the high school’s 7:20 am start time.

The group was conceptually approved in September. Monday night’s special meeting was scheduled in part to discuss the composition.* The committees’ point person on the issue presented the vision she worked with others to develop. Like the schools’ busing system, it’s tiered.

Regional member Kathleen Harragan Polutchko said they were never going to come up with a 6-7 member committee that worked for three districts and two towns. Trying to balance constituents from each district, it quickly added up to over 40 members.

Don’t worry, that’s not as unwieldy as it sounds.

Polutchko described a plan inspired by advice from a district that was successful in adopting start time change. A central Working Group will oversee multiple sub-groups. Those sub-groups will be assigned issues to investigate and community areas from which to solicit input. (Scroll down for the breakdown of membership.)**

She also laid out what she acknowledged was an aggressive timeline. That begins with critical meetings in November culminating in a final presentation to the combined Committees on March 20th. In the next couple of weeks, the core group should determine the statement of purpose and identify areas of focus. November 9th is the target for naming subgroup members.

Referring to potential delays due to winter storms, Polutchko said she’d rather “be aggressive and slip than not be aggressive and really slip.” She warned a looser schedule could lead to them ending up with nothing to report at the end of the school year.

Answering questions, Polutchko shared an ambitious goal. She didn’t think either town had “an appetite” for a lot of effort and money to make a 20 minute change. She said the ultimate goal should be meeting the recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics – an 8:30 am start time for the high school. But, they need to consider that may not be achievable and know their other options.

There was some talk about the science behind the need for change. Regional member Kathleen Howland wondered if the group would be reading up on that. Polutchko responded that she didn’t think that was necessary. They’d been looking at the issue since 2012 and no one seems to question the science. But Regional member Dan Kolenda, prior and later, expressed skepticism about the entire exercise.

Admitting he may be the lone voice, Kolenda said that some kids will just stay up an hour later. He pointed to need for student and parent discipline. Howland responded that later hours are part of their natural sleep cycle necessitating the change and referred to changing knowledge about effects of sleep deprivation.

Polutchko later acknowledged that any big changes will require community education on the need. She hoped the Start School Later group would support that effort. She pointed to the committees’ past education attempts including expert presentations hosted by the school. She said that we’ll have to see how successful those efforts will be. Johnson said that all of the past presentations and information are still available on the website. (Click here for that. You can also find the past expert speaker presentations videos and handouts here.)

No one else present questioned the need to continue studying the issue. But other members did express concerns about specific challenges and impacts.

Northborough member Keith Lebel asked if Algonquin teacher’s contracts specified the 7:20 am start time. Polutchko didn’t know. She said that they have nine contracts for the districts and will need to deeply delve into all of them to see if there are start time implications.

Regional member Kathy Kea said she believed the science on average but each child is different. She wondered if an option would be available for students who prefer to start the day early and end earlier. Polutchko said that she hoped the group would come up with a bevvy of ideas.

Northborough member Kelly Guenette said that she knew another district’s change impacted pre-K families and commuters – two groups not represented in the proposed study group structure. She wondered if other non-K-12 community representatives should be included. Harrigan responded that was where the list starts getting longer fast. She explained that the subgroups would reach out to get input from groups like that. She said everyone deserves to be heard but they can’t put them all on the committee.

Kolenda, also a Southborough selectman, said that some Town Meeting voters won’t spend a dime without believing there is a real need. Others he said will say, I had to get up early and I’m fine. And another group will point the the district’s successful ranking and say we must be doing fine.

Polutchko responded that the Advisory/Appropriations members are included with hope they’ll have a finger on the Town’s pulse. She followed that selectmen and the advisory committees need to be seen as the first line of defense. If they can’t get support from them for a financial request, she doesn’t see how it would pass at Town Meeting.

To support the work Polutchko and Johnson hope to bring in a bus transportation consultant. They said that without that information they’d just keep coming back to the same issues they’ve looked at since 2012. Johnson referred to it as looking at our busing routes and challenges through a different lens. She said consultants have expertise on the issues and traffic patterns that the administration doesn’t. If hired, the consultant will also help N-S administration determine next year’s routes.

Along with the study group structure, the combined committees unanimously voted to approve putting out an RFP at the superintendent’s request. She explained their vote wasn’t needed but would be a positive message. Unspecified funding will come out of the current transportation budget. Johnson explained that there was a line item she doesn’t expect need for (to cover accelerating gas costs).

The superintendent is hoping to partner with the Assabet Collaborative and Marlborough schools to share a consultant at a reduced cost. She shared that bus woes are a frequent topic at the Assabet collaborative. It seems that most regions have one school bus provider and therefore only one bidder. A message from Sudbury’s administration to parents about bus problems this year were almost a copy of the messages from our Central Office.

If you are interested in participating in the study effort, stay tuned. The administration will send out messages to recruit parents and teachers through virtual backpacks and help from parent and teacher associations. And anyone who isn’t selected for a subgroup can still attend the public meetings.

*The special meeting was planned to be held this fall to deal with the Start Time Study Group. But it was also needed to follow up on Superintendent Johnson’s retirement announcement this fall. You can read about the discussed replacement search process in yesterday’s post.

**As promised, here is the approved Study Group/Task Force composition:***

The core Working Group (7 members) will be spearheaded by Polutchko and include a member of Southborough’s Advisory Committee (the Town’s committee responsible for advising Town Meeting members on Warrant Articles and budgets), a member of Northboro Appropriations (their version of Advisory), the Superintendent, the Assistant Superintendent, and the Schools’ Business Director, plus Algonquin’s school physician as an ex officio member.

The remaining members to serve on subgroups as:

  • School committee members (1 from each district) = 3
  • School administrators (a K-5 school, middle school, and Algonquin) = 3
  • K-8 Parents (From each Town: 2 with K-5 kids and 1 with a middle school student) = 6
  • ARHS Parents (1 per grade) = 4
  • Teachers (1 per school) = 10
  • Algonquin students (2 per grade) = 8

The goal is to balance the above members with a fair representation of the two towns.

***Updated (10/25/18 10:26 am): I received the official breakdown that was voted on Monday night. I rewrote it as based on the document rather than on my interpretation of Polutchko’s verbal description. My original list included 4 more parents than will be included. I initially wrote:

Polutchko recalled to the committee a total they got “down to 41”, but her description would tally to 45. I’m following up with the central office for clarity and will update the post when I have it.

The discrepancy was that Polutchko described that there would be parents from each Town, then broke down number of parents by grade group. I took that as 7 parents per district x 2 = 14. But from each Town only referred to the first two groupings she described. The third – parents of Algonquin students – was a total of 1 per grade. 

It’s also worth noting that while Monday’s agenda had posted “Study Group”, the approved document reflects the agenda from September by describing a “Start Time Task Force”. So, that may be the language we see in future postings/notices from the school.

1 SB Resident October 24, 2018 at 4:14 PM

A few thoughts…
– There was some implication here that any funds to fund this would have to come as additional funding approved through town meeting. While that is one avenue to pursue, Kolenda is right that it is a risky sell. Finding the funds or some percentage in the current budget should also be on the table and splitting the burden will make smaller ask more likely to pass. There has been discussion about priorities with the BYOD and this falls squarely into that. Is 100% of all the money spent really a higher priority than getting this done? This has gained so much traction because most don’t agree. Is free full day kindergarten a higher priority? Is there any way to close Neary? Does that save money? Does that make busing cheaper? Can the trailers be moved to Finn or Woodward to help?
– I personally don’t agree with the ‘science’ behind this, but I think it’s irrelevant. This is a societal issue, for better or worse society has shifted later and we will react or we will fall behind.
– I think the target start time should be 8, maybe 8:10 with an arrival time of 8. 8:30 seems like it would be a tougher sell, that will appear late to a lot of people.
– An idea I haven’t heard discussed. It is my impression that a lot of kids are driven to/from school at all ages and that the buses aren’t very full. (Please correct me if that is wrong.) There could be potentially a significant savings if the families would voluntarily withdraw from busing. Is there some incentive would could provide for volunteering? We should already have the data on how full buses are and should be able to extrapolate any savings if we could find a way to implement more efficient bus utilization.
– How about implementing that split tax rate and having that help fund this. ;-)

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