Learning better later at Onteora

McLaren SQSuperintendent Paul Jenkins of Glens Falls discussed his school district’s successful pushing back of the high school start time, now in its third year, as he spoke to Onteora school board members and about 40 parents and staff at the board meeting on February 24. Jenkins described a rocky transition to the later start time but depicted the result as beneficial to students, as demonstrated by reductions in tardiness, course failure, and discipline referrals, with no major ill effects reported in the community.

Onteora superintendent Phyllis McGill has proposed, based on research about sleep and the brains of teenagers, that the Onteora middle/high school adopt a later start time, and a shared decision-making team has met three times to consider the controversial proposal. Jenkins cautioned that Glens Falls, located 120 miles north of Ulster County, is a small city with a school district of only four square miles and no busing, as compared to Onteora’s nearly 300 square miles. “The challenges for you will be different,” he pointed out.

A proposal to shift the high school schedule was made by Onteora parents about ten years ago but was quickly rejected by the board. The primary objections included the challenge of busing all students through the district at the same time and the need on the part of many working parents for high school students to be available for child care when younger siblings ended their school day. By now, fuel has been added to the argument by the establishment of later start times in several school districts around the country, including New York municipalities such as Elmira, Coxsackie, and Athens.

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The impetus for the change in Glens Falls came from a faculty committee seeking to improve academic achievement and raise the graduation rate, which was hovering between 68 and 72 percent. The teachers examined research that shows that teenagers’ brains begin to secrete the sleep-promoting chemical melatonin around 11 p.m., and its activity remains strong until about 8 a.m. Studies suggest that teens are wired to go to sleep later and wake later than adults and children, resulting in sleep deprivation when high school students are forced to rise at 6:15 a.m. to catch a school bus. Sleep deprivation has been shown to lead to irritability, impulsiveness, depression, and decreased functionality.

Jenkins was initially on board with the teachers’ suggestion but recognized that careful planning and communication would be key to a successful transition. “Changing timing is changing the norms of community,” he observed. “People have to change their routines of lunch, day care, work schedules. It’s a very emotional issue.” A group of students involved in athletics and extra-curricular activities picketed the superintendent’s office, convinced that they would not have time to complete homework and other activities. Sports coaches feared their teams would not arrive at competitions in time to warm up and prepare psychologically.

In a two-year process, the district partnered with sleep researchers at St. Lawrence University to present information to the public, conducted traffic studies, and heard objections from all areas of the community. The school board voted twice to adopt the change and once to rescind it.

In September of 2012, the high school start time was changed from 7:45 a.m. to 8:26 a.m. Over the next year and continuing to the present, the school documented a drop in class-cutting, disorderly conduct, disrespectful behavior, electronic device violation, time-outs imposed by teachers, and truancy. Later times for athletic competitions were negotiated with neighboring districts but turned out to be unnecessary. The change could not be accomplished for BOCES students, but they were able to return to the high school for a class at the end of the now later school day.

Most questioners seemed sympathetic to the idea of changing the start time, but a few were skeptical, one pointing out possible hardships for parents and doubting the wisdom of introducing yet another divisive issue into the school community. Jenkins said that, like Onteora, Glens Falls had to face closing an elementary school, reconfiguring schools, and an issue involving tax inequality. To address community concerns, he said, “Presenting the research was key. We opened up our board meetings for public comment, with opportunity for discussion with the board and administrators, and we held three public forums.”

One speaker wanted information on increased success rather just decreased failure in the district. “I’d like to know if graduates got into better colleges,” she said. “Can you ask your people to study the change in GPAs [grade point averages]?”

Jenkins, reporting that graduation rates rose slightly to 76 percent, replied, “My high school principal is a data cruncher. I’ll sic him on it.”

 

In other district news:

  • Superintendent Phyllis McGill announced that she will be taking a leave of absence from March 15 to June 12 in order to care for her mother, who has brain cancer. Assistant superintendent Victoria McLaren will serve as acting superintendent for that period.
  • McGill and McLaren presented a first draft of their proposed 2015-2016 budget, which entails a 1.98 percent tax levy increase to a total of $41,056,392. They suggested using $2,500,000 of the fund balance to keep the increase down to that rate, leaving an unexpended fund balance of $6,257, 233.
  • Among the key figures still unknown is the level of state funding, projected by the Senate Finance Committee to increase by a mere $25,000. A placeholder of an eight percent increase in health insurance has been set, but latest estimates show a possible six percent increase. Also the high school is still working on its master schedule, with students indicating their preferences for electives, which will affect staffing needs.
  • Anticipated staff changes include six retirements, a boon for the budget, since although five will need to be replaced, new teachers will come in at a much lower salary. New state mandates, which McGill emphasized are unfunded, require some classes in the native language for students whose first language is not English. Cindy Bishop, Director of Pupil Personnel Services, anticipates adding two new full-time teachers of ESL (English as a Second Language), now renamed ENL (English as a New Language), since many new English speakers already know two other languages. These staff will be needed to extend Onteora’s ENL program to Woodstock Primary School. Compensating for the new hires, Bishop suggests releasing the ENL teacher currently borrowed from BOCES for .6 of her time, since the $86,000 spent on the BOCES teacher compares unfavorably with the roughly $41,000 the district would spend on an in-house teacher for the same amount of time.
  • Trustee Laurie Osmond recommended keeping the BOCES teacher, who is already familiar with students and may be needed, as area hospitality services appear to be on the rise, bringing an increasing number of Spanish-speaking employees and their children into the district. Bishop prefers to hire another in-house ENL teacher if necessary, providing more flexibility in staffing.
  • McGill and McLaren asked for guidance from the board regarding the 1.98 tax levy increase, and most trustees were comfortable with that figure. Board members Bobbi Schnell and Rob Kurnit both said they would prefer a smaller increase. Kurnit added, “I would like it to be as low as possible, but things are changing, and it’s harder to maintain the fund balances we have in the past.”
  • The administrators will present another draft of the budget on March 10, with a deadline for adoption by the board on April 7, pending approval by voters in May.

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