In the effort to ensure its middle and high school students get eight to nine hours of sleep every night, maximizing their academic potential and keeping them in good health, the New Paltz Central School District is exploring the possibility of making changes to the school day schedule. Potential changes include starting the elementary school day earlier and starting the middle and high school days later.
The district’s proposal is based on medical research, with the Board of Education citing studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics to back up its argument.
At the district’s recent regular Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, January 4, a presentation was given by Dr. David Blaiklock, senior research director of K12 Insight, an independent research firm hired by the district to conduct a survey of New Paltz parents, staff and high school students. The survey (along with a later follow-up questionnaire offered to parents) was administered in order to gather feedback about how the factions involved view the potential impacts of changing school start and end times.
Some of the challenges cited include transportation factors (buses, drivers and budget), child care demands, parental work schedules, student commitment to employers, reductions in evening time for homework and family, scheduling for before-school and after-school activities (both school-sponsored and independent) and coordination with external organizations and facilities.
The survey was developed by K12 Insight after focus groups representing a sampling of parents, staff and students met in the fall of 2016 to discuss the matter. Insights gleaned during those meetings were used to develop the questions on the survey, which was approved by schools Superintendent Maria Rice before being offered to all parents, staff and students. Blaiklock’s presentation of the highlights of the survey data at the January 4 New Paltz BOE meeting was the first time board members and administrators had heard the results.
Overall, the data shows mixed opinions among parents and staff members about whether or not the school times should change, with staff members responding to the proposed changes less positively on the whole. High school students supported a later school start time, but all of the factions involved expressed some concern about the impact the changes would make at the end of the school day.
The benefits to students with later middle and high school start times were listed as decreased stress, increased wakefulness and attentiveness during first period and time to eat breakfast before school.
The survey was open from November 29 to December 15. Thirty-seven percent of parents responded, with 55 percent responding to the additional follow-up questionnaire. Thirty-eight percent of the staff responded and 66 percent of the students. The participation rate was considered good for parents, but less than what they usually have from staff and students when doing similar studies, Blaiklock said. Participation, on average, usually runs at approximately 50 percent for staff and 75-80 percent for students.
Students’ health and sleep and their academic performance received the highest and second-highest weighted scores from parents, staff members and students as the most important factors to consider when reviewing the school schedule. Timing of after-school activities had the third-highest weighted score at the middle and high school levels and the sixth highest score at the elementary level.
The current start times were selected with the most frequency when parents, staff and students were asked to select the ideal start times for elementary, middle and high schools. The exception was Duzine Elementary School staff, who selected 9:15 a.m. as the ideal start time with greater frequency than the current start time of 9:25 a.m.
At least 38 percent of participating parents, staff and students indicated a change in school end times would have a negative impact on students’ after-school activities. Forty-nine percent of participating parents indicated a change in school start and end times would have a positive impact on students’ general health and well-being, but 50 percent indicated the change would have a negative impact on students’ ability to spend time with family. Seventy-one percent of high school students agreed or strongly agreed that a later school start time would have a positive impact on their sleep.
The Board of Education will now use the data to contemplate their course of action, considering community feedback, research and other factors over the next few months before deciding whether to make the change in school start and end times next year.
But the problem with the data compiled through the surveys, according to BOE member Steven Greenfield, is that the questions posed were more about perceptions than “actionable” information he felt he could use to determine whether changing the school start time will allow students to get more sleep. For example, he said, he needs to know more than what percentage of high school students goes to bed at 10, 10:30 or 11 p.m. and what percentage gets up for school at 6, 6:30 or 7 a.m., because there is no way of knowing from those numbers what an individual student’s actual sleep time is.
Board member Michael O’Donnell pointed out that that the problem with asking survey participants about their reactions to changing to an undefined “later” start time means that some might be interpreting “later” as half an hour while others might be thinking of an hour. “There are a recommended number of hours of sleep per night that a student should get, and basically I’d like to know, ‘how many of our students don’t get that.’”
Blaiklock said in response that with some more time, they could go back to the data they compiled and get the board that information. (With the initial survey having cost the district $25,000, a woman in the audience was overheard to say, ‘yes, but at what cost.’)
Blaiklock told the board and administrators that according to the results of the survey, if they could find a way to push back the start time of the school day without impacting the end time, that would be their ideal solution. To gain the extra time in the middle of the day would likely mean taking it from the lunch break and/or time allotted between classes.
The full 60-slide presentation of the survey results may be viewed in its entirety on the district website at newpaltz.k12.ny.us.