Planet Princeton

A later wake-up call: Princeton school board approves new start time at the high school

Students at Princeton High School will be able to sleep in an extra half hour on school days starting next fall.

The school board Tuesday night approved a new start time and end time for the high school for the 2018-19 academic year that begins in September. The move, a year in the making, is an attempt to better align start times with the biological clocks of teenagers. Study after study has shown that teenagers need more sleep, and perform better when they start school later.

School board members and district administrators spent months working on the changes and getting buy-in from parents, community members, teachers and other staff members.

The high school day currently starts at 7:50 a.m. and ends at 2:50 p.m. In September, the start time will be pushed back to 8:20 a.m. School will end at 3:20 p.m. The middle school and elementary schools will not be affected by the changes. Both times are 15 minutes earlier than an original proposal that was met with opposition by some teachers in the district, who said the later start and end times ruined their own schedules and commutes.

Lighted sports fields at the high school will be unnecessary as a result of the amended plan the board approved Tuesday night.

For the 2019-20 academic year, the middle school would start at the same time as the high school. After the first year, district officials will evaluate the impact of the changes and make adjustments if necessary.

Several students, the two high school representatives to the school board, and several parents spoke again in favor of the time change at the board meeting.

School board member Gregory Stankiewicz said before the vote that the Princeton Public Schools district has the opportunity to be a leader by changing the start times. He cited a recent survey that revealed that students at the high school only get an average of about six to less than seven hours of sleep.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later for high schoolers. In 2011, the Brookings Institution reported that moving school start times later especially helps increase test scores for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A 2014 University of Minnesota study found similar effects at 8 public high schools in 3 states: delaying school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later resulted in higher grades and scores on achievement tests in core subjects, and improved attendance and tardiness rates. In the community with the latest start time in the study, car crashes involving teen drivers declined by 70 percent.

“The research is so strong and robust,”  Stankiewicz said. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s the brave thing to do.”

School board member Dafna Kendal said she supports the decision to change the time because it is in the best interest of the children.

Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said the district has been looking holistically at student wellness issues and stress and that the time change is just one effort of many to help students. The district is also looking at changing how students use their time during the day. A modified block schedule is being implemented at the high school, with a rotating schedule. The high school is also focusing on project based, problem based learning.

School board member Michele Tuck Ponder was the lone member of the board not to vote yes on the change. She abstained.

“Despite my best efforts to read the research, I’ve also taken some time to listen to opinions on this pro and con. My greatest concern is that I think that we are very enthusiastic about starting the day later, but we haven’t addressed what happens when you end the day later,” Ponder said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people about how this impacts after-school activities and athletics. Parents who are working parents want to be sure that their kids get to school on time and will not be able to do that with the later start time. There is a significant expense to Cranbury. I’m not the Cranbury representative, but I do feel I represent those folks as well. I’m not confident that starting the day later will achieve the objective we seek.”

Ponder said the district needs to work with parents to get kids to practice better sleep hygiene, and needs to manage the amount of homework students have. She also said a more comprehensive approach is needed in order to make sure students get more rest.

School Board President Patrick Sullivan said brave parents brought up the start time issue several years ago and were ignored. “It’s great that we are doing this. The process was wonderful. It involved a lot of discussion and compromise. That was all a great thing,” he said. “This is not the end of this process. It is only the beginning.”

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

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