District forming new Start Time “task force”

The Combined School Committees are forming a community task force to look into options for changing high school start times. Prompted by a citizen petition and supported by the Superintendent, committees’ members voted to approve a special working group.

The goal is to present potential solutions in time for the Superintendent to make recommendations to the Combined committees by the end of this school year.

But, don’t expect a change for next September’s bus schedule. Changes could come at a cost beyond the normal school budgets. That would require approval of Southborough and Northborough Town Meeting voters. Advocates and committee members didn’t see that as achievable for this budget cycle. (Budgets for next fall are finalized in January for Town Meetings this spring.)

Plus, “Start School Later” representatives said there is less negative feedback to change when families have 9-12 months notice to adjust their “logistics”.

Mary Hamaker presented to committee members alongside Michelle Brownlee who managed the petition effort. Hamaker explained that they were responding to what they saw as committee members’ nervousness about diving into change. She referred to nervous laughter over the controversy around Boston Schools’ controversial change efforts.

She told members that the online petition signed by over 680 people (most district residents) was to let them know that as they look into changing Algonquin’s start time:

the community stands with you. We want change and we want to do it with you. We are here to support you.

Brownlee pointed to mistakes that she believed Boston made that our district could avoid. She said they failed to present the community with multiple options and work to get community buy in before announcing a decision. But she also warned the committee about past efforts that put a lot of focus on free solutions. They can continue to look for “that golden egg” but they also need to:

look at solutions that aren’t cost free, price them out and see if its a pill we’re willing to swallow as a community to make things better for our kids.

She said they should look at all kinds of options, put them on the table and see which ones seem most acceptable to us as a community.

Initially, Regional School Committee member Dan Kolenda questioned what they were being asked to do. The school has looked into this issue and even had a subcommittee, no solution has met every family’s individual needs, and petitions are often signed by people just trying to use the Transfer Station.* Superintendent Johnson responded that she supported the task force as a logical next step.

Johnson talked about the work the administration had put into looking at the issue. She said that looking at what other districts have done, a community group makes sense. She said they may not find new answers, but it was good to have a “new lense” and “new eyes” on the challenge.

The superintendent positioned the task force work would be mainly done by Start School Later. The administration would provide information, support, and resources. Hamaker corrected that SSL couldn’t bear the brunt and wanted it to be led by the combined school committees. Due to potential costs, Committee members talked about including Town Financial people or representatives appointed by selectmen.

Several committee members spoke about the clear need to find a solution. Regional member Kathleen Howland of Northborough said she ran for her seat with hope of addressing this issue. As a college professor she has seen the impact of “corrupted” sleep patterns in students.

Southborough School Committee Member Jennifer Primack spoke about the need for a serious task force involving the committees versus members “throwing out” suggestions as they have in past meetings on the topic.

She suggested a task force could form a rubric for priorities and factors to consider. Options would be graded using the rubric. That way, even those who disagree with committee’s decisions wouldn’t be able to assail the reasoning that went into it.

Kolenda asked about also including sleep education for parents. (For example – what time do their kids start the “sleep process”?)

Hamaker supported that changes to start time need to include that. She said that results are better when health education with “sleep hygiene” is included in the effort. But Primacker also reminded that biology research shows it is hard for teens to go to sleep early enough to get the hours they need for an early start time.

In addition to looking at new starting bell, Johnson also wanted to continue investigating a new schedule for the Algonquin school day. She said the current version is the same one they followed 32 years ago when she worked at Algonquin.** She wants to keep exploring more innovative models that address “other concerns” that have been raised.

There was some debate over voting on the task force composition. Kolenda suggested they needed time to look at that, so a vote should wait until their next combined meeting. With the next scheduled Combined meeting in December, others wanted to vote that night. But there was confusion about what the committee should look like.

Johnson’s suggested holding a special Combined meeting later this fall to approve the composition. The Superintendent will work with SSL reps, the chairs of each individual committee and Regional’s issue liaison (Southborough’s Kathleen Harrigan) to come up with one or more recommended options. That plan was unanimously approved by attending members.

*Editor’s note: In this case, it was an online petition. So, I don’t think it included signatures collected at Transfer Stations.

**Editor’s note: I was confused by Johnson saying the schedule was the same as 32 years ago – since that’s when I attended the school. (Which makes me feel so old!) The current bell schedule doesn’t jive with my memory at all for ’84-’89. But Johnson worked at the school from ’88 to 2001. So, perhaps she’s off by a couple of years with the current schedule adopted soon after I graduated.

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SB Resident
5 years ago

Just reading this, I feel like the goal is already doomed. Clicking the start-school-later tag shows how long this debate has been going on already and another task force isn’t going to magically find a new solution that everyone will rally around. We already know the problems that need to be solved and the solutions aren’t that complicated, just costly. And with a prominent school committee member who can’t even understand what starting school later means and is clearly against a change, I smell nothing but delay.

It feels like this plan should come from the superintendents office. They are the ones with all the information required to put forth some plans with their associated costs. Am I that wrong on what their role is? The school committee will either prioritize this over other budget items like free kindergarten or class sizes, we’ll raise taxes, or we’ll decide that the costs are too high and the kids can suffer. At least we will have looked at it and made a decision and not just continued “to look into it” because they answer is already no.

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