Princeton Public Schools officials revise proposal to start classes later in the day at the high school

A controversial proposal to start classes at Princeton High School nearly an hour later has been modified after school district officials heard feedback from teachers, staff members, parents and other community members.

The high school day currently starts at 7:50 a.m. and ends at 2:50 p.m. Officials wanted to push back start times for high school students to address wellness issues and student stress. Studies show that later school starts can benefit adolescents and teens, who often don’t get enough sleep.

Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane discussed modifications to the proposal to start classes later at the school board’s annual reorganization meeting on Tuesday night.

“There has been some thoughtful engagement about the value of shifting start times later for middle school and high school students so they are better aligned with their sleep cycles,” he said. “We’ve received positive feedback, but there have also been a lot of legitimate questions and concerns about expanded childcare, the impact on after-school activities and sports, commute times and changes in schedules for staff.”

The board has worked out a proposal that would balance the needs of students, community members and staff members, Cochrane said. Many teachers opposed the later start time of almost an hour because of how it would affect their commutes and schedules. “We worked in concert with the leadership of the union to construct the proposal I just shared with you, a proposal that helps unite us,” Cochrane said.

Under the latest proposal, only the start and end time at the high school would change for the 2018-19 school year. The middle school and elementary schools would not be affected.

The high school day would start at 8:20 a.m. and end at 3:20 p.m. Both times are 15 minutes earlier than the original proposal. After the first year, the district would evaluate the impact of the changes and make adjustments if necessary.

Cochrane said the changes would alleviate concerns about after-school sports and activities. Lighted sports fields would also be unnecessary as part of the new proposed schedule, he said. Many residents who live near the high school opposed the idea of having lighted sports fields.

For the 2019-20 academic year, the middle school would start at the same time as the high school.

“This proposal was the result of a lot of listening from a lot of folks,” School Board President Patrick Sullivan said. “The board is listening and trying to do the right thing for everyone. It sounds like this is a pretty happy compromise that teachers and many others I’ve talked to are happy with.”

Board member Evelyn Spann, the representative to the school board from Cranbury, said Cranbury wants a commitment from the district that the new schedule will be adopted and kept.

“We have a large financial commitment to this. We’d like to know you are committed to this 8:20 start. We have to decide whether to make a commitment to do tiered busing or purchase buses,” she said.  “If you say it didn’t work and you’re going back,  we are stuck with a financial impact that we have no reverse on. We would just like to hear there is a commitment on this.”

Spann said the Cranbury Board of Education is working on a long-range facilities plan and had postponed some plans because of the transportation issue and related costs. “We need to make provisions to plan appropriately,” she said. “I would just would like to hear commitment.”

Cochrane said a decision will be made by the board by the next public meeting on Jan. 23, after the district receives feedback from the community.

In other news, the board also named Sullivan president for the second year in a row. Betsy Baglio was elected vice president. Both votes were unanimous and no other candidates were nominated.

New school board members Beth Behrend, Jessica Deutsch and Michele Tuck-Ponder were also sworn in for three-year terms.

“You are joining a team that has a lot of very important work to do as you know — a major facilities referendum, work around racial literacy and equity for all of our students, and continued work in the area of wellness,” Cochrane said.

The board is considering  starting the public sessions of board meetings earlier, at 7:30 p.m. and closed sessions 6 p.m., giving the board 90 minutes for closed sessions instead of an hour. New board member Michele Tuck-Ponder said the board should be respectful of the public’s time and end closed sessions on time so that the public is not kept waiting.

A public meeting will be held in the spring to discuss the bond referendum to expand the schools. A date has not been set yet. The board received a new demographics report this week. The demographer will attend the Jan. 23 board meeting to review the report and answer questions.