Thursday, March 23, 2023


Board of Ed Ponders Thorny Issues: School Start Time & Student Success

By Jarret Liotta

It was a learning moment tonight for the Board of Education (BOE) as it heard two very different — but equally compelling — presentations on education. One featured a recommendation to move Westport’s school start time forward by 30 minutes. Image
Christine Wanner, coordinator of health and physical education (l) and Suzanne Levasseur, supervisor of health services, answer questions about the School Start Time Committee’s recommendation that no Westport school begin before 8 a.m. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for

After meeting for more than a year, the School Start Time Committee unanimously recommended that no Westport school should start before 8 a.m.

While it’s still in the discussion stages, some BOE members talked of such a change by 2020 to give people and institutions time to adjust.

“It’s about the timing of sleep,” said Christine Wanner, coordinator of health and physical education, who addressed the board with Suzanne Levasseur, supervisor of health services.

At the heart of the discussion is science stating that the circadian rhythm for teenagers runs later, making early bedtimes still physiological less impactful in terms of them getting proper rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that requires a later morning in bed.

Unlike adults and young children, for teens, Levasseur said, “the best REM sleep … is a lot of times after 4 a.m. and until 8 a.m., and it’s just not really in sync with what we do.”

The 15-person committee included various stakeholders and reviewed a range of research and anecdotal evidence from other districts that have implemented earlier start times.

“For your recommendation to be unanimous is really powerful for us,” said BOE Vice Chair Jeannie Smith. Image
Richard Lemons, executive director for the Connecticut Center for School Change and Lecturer in Education Studies at Yale University, talks to the Board of Education about best practices and different educational philosophies. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for

“This is such a hot topic,” she said. “It’s everywhere you turn (and) it’s across the board that everyone feels this is beneficial for kids.”

But at least two BOE members sounded skeptical, including Karen Kleine, who said she had once favored it but now wasn’t sure. She cited a study in Wilton that she said demonstrated that students there are still experiencing a range of distress, despite the district having had an earlier start time for many years.

BOE member Elaine Whitney indicated it might be a hard sell to the community at large, citing past experience with school time changes, particular as it impacts athletics and after-school programs.

“There will be changes that we’ll have to adapt to,” said BOE member Vik Muktavaram, who served on the committee with BOE member Candy Savin.

“Once you start learning about this issue, it’s hard not to become an advocate,” said Christine Meiers Schatz, Representative Town Meeting member from District 2, who spearheaded the local effort for this reform beginning with her nonprofit Sleep for Success Westport.

She told the BOE that many area private schools already have later starts, while many other countries known for high education standards begin after 8:30 a.m.

“The research is so strong,” she said, “it’s on us to figure out how we can make the logistics work to get some of those benefits.”

Meanwhile, in answer to questions about what education research says about grade configurations — in particular any thoughts behind the concept of a grade six academy — the BOE heard a presentation from Richard Lemons, executive director for the Connecticut Center for School Change at Yale University and a Ph.D.

Noting that transitions between school buildings are one of the most major pitfalls facing students, he said the most successful models include a single K-8 school, and even an all-inclusive K-12 school.

“Transitions are tough on children,” he said, “and transitions are particularly tough in adolescents, grades six to eight … so movement across schools can have some negative consequences.”

“The research seems to suggest that if we keep kids in K-8 settings, they will do better … There seems to be more evidence pointing in that direction,” he said.

But Lemons was adamant that research is far from definitive, as well as complex, noting there was no single direction he would point Westport. He said the couple dozen school districts in the country that have a sixth grade academy are very pleased with it, while other are just as pleased to have made a decision not to have one.

“Westport is going to have to figure out what works best for you,” he said.

He noted that the most traditional model of K-6, 7-8, 9-12 is almost an arbitrary one. “It’s just because we’ve always done it that way,” he said, which is why people become attached to it.

“When we push against the common structure … we tend to react out of emotion and our personal experience,” he said, “rather than any clear body of evidence of what’s good for kids.”

Asked about what he felt was good for kids, Lemons put in a plug for more unstructured play time in early childhood and “not being worried about getting 4-year olds to read.”

He cited discussions he has had with educators in a high-performing foreign country who expressed their disbelief regarding a perception that all American schools ever do is conduct standardized tests.

“’What do you do with this testing information?’” he said they ask. “’Do kids get to play ever?’”

“They don’t quite understand our obsession with accountability and testing,” he said.

At the end of the day, Lemons said, how successful a school district is going to be is contingent on its school community — its teachers, its framework, and how its students are aided during times of transitions and led to feel they’re part of the school community.

“Relationships do matter,” he said.

“All things being equal, give my kid a really good teacher this year,” Lemons said.

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