Due Diligence, Please—
Thursday, March 16, 2017 12:06 PM
I’m not much one to write a letter to the editor, but I had an interesting experience February 28, 2017, at my first community meeting since transplanting to midcoast Maine from elsewhere in the nation. The midcoast school districts’ representatives were meeting to hear community feedback regarding proposed changes to school start times. However, the proposed solutions for implementing this change garnered quite a bit of varied concerns over hardships to families. What was curious to me about the forum was not that there were many different points of view (that goes without saying), but the dynamics of the conversation struck me as a bit odd.
First of all, I’ll give you my personal stance on this issue in order to fairly expose my bias. We live in MSAD 28. One of the proposals slated to be put before the school board this spring is to start the elementary school earlier in order to give the middle and high school students a later start.
There is a bit of evidence demonstrating benefit to middle and high school students shifting start times to 8:30 a.m. or later. Initially, I did not believe this would be true; I had the pre-conception that this was a discipline issue that would not likely change with an administrative fix. So I did some cursory research, and short of doing my own statistical analysis of the studies referenced, I chose to believe that the subject matter experts were validated in recommending benefit to start times of 8:30 a.m. or later for our teens. Therefore, I support efforts to delay school start times for this age group.
What I could not find in the research were any correlating studies on the impact to elementary school students who changed their school start times to begin prior to 8:30 a.m. Research appears to be lacking on impact of school start times for the elementary age group. There are, however, studies that document some of the same negative impacts of sleep deficiencies to elementary age children as to older children in regards to emotional control. While this is likely no surprise to most parents, having research compare the symptoms of sleep deficit in otherwise healthy U.S. elementary age children to the symptoms of ADHD should cause a few parents and school officials to at least take pause. You see, there are the mechanics of sleep, such as “S” factors and circadian rhythms which suggest that our younger students are biologically able to fall asleep earlier and wake earlier than our older ones; then, in contrast, there are also the logistics of providing our youngest students, who require the most sleep, with the recommended hours (which according to the American Academy of Pediatrics is 10 to 13 hours for our sleepy 5-year-old kindergartners and 9 to 12 hours for kids age 6 to 12).
It was suggested by the panel that while change is sometimes unpleasant, people manage to adapt. Of course this is true, but the adaptation may not be to the benefit of the child. See, some parents have bosses who studied business in school and not medicine; they are less interested in little Johnny’s “S” factor level and more interested in the bottom line. The point is that for many families, the workplace realities will not change even as school times change for our students. What this means is that there are likely one of two ways the typical elementary school child will be impacted by earlier start times; either their family time will be reduced during the school week or they will experience a reduction in sleep hours.
In a September 2016 letter, MSAD 28 CRES parents were instructed that our children were categorically not being given homework because, alternatively, parents were highly encouraged to engage in proven activities to help our children academically, such as: family meal times, reading together, playing math games together, playing outside, etc. Now are we being told that reducing these activities by half an hour each day in order to get kids to bed in time for an earlier start is not going to have a negative impact on our children’s performance? Really? Which reasoning is correct then? MSAD 28, please explain. Perhaps they think we are able to tutor our children in math games, read stories together, provide extra-curricular activities, eat the same number of family meals together each week, and still send our kids to bed half an hour earlier, or perhaps the justification is that they think the majority of families engage in our games, sports, family meals and educational activities before 7:45 a.m. Either rationale involves a pretty important assumption. Why didn’t the school district perform a statistically relevant study to determine how many hours each day families have for these activities, and when those times occur before proposing action to change the school schedule? Where is the due diligence?
A half-an-hour adjustment to a family schedule may not sound like much until you take a closer look. I’ll give you my family’s example since I have already established that I have a bias. Our child is usually asleep when his father leaves for work. From the time his father arrives home until his bedtime there are 3.5 hours. (Fortunately, our child is not one who needs 12 hours of sleep and we only have one parent working, so only one work schedule to consider. Many families get less than 3.5 hours together each school day.) A “small” adjustment of half an hour means a reduction in our work week family time of over 14 percent. We are a lucky family. For some families, that small half-hour adjustment might mean bedtime for an elementary school student before an older sibling arrives home from extra-curricular activities all week (essentially eliminating sibling family time during the school week), or simply no family dinners with mom and/or dad. Perhaps, the elementary school student will themselves need to give up their extra-curricular pursuits in order to achieve an earlier bedtime. For a lot of children though, accommodations simply won’t be made, or won’t be able to logistically be made, and they will just go with half an hour less of sleep each night.
These blatantly obvious potential consequences left me wondering — why would we be considering a solution to a scientifically presented problem for one student population which introduces a new and similar potential risk to the health and well-being of another student population without adequate scientifically validated assessment? It comes across as reactionary, superficial, and unsatisfactory. So obvious is the discrepancy in thought process that I feel it had to have been part of school administration discussion prior to being presented to the public; but when it most seems like an explanation should be forthcoming, it is not. I am left to wonder if this is a political tactic to make a plan B solution seem more palatable.
Other parents brought up additional concerns regarding children waiting for free and reduced breakfasts if later start times were implemented, the additional child care costs incurred if younger children arrive home before older siblings, long bus times resulting in some children potentially arriving home after 5 p.m. if schedules were delayed rather than starting early (under consideration in other district), and the impact of time changes on sports activities.
This is where the forum seemed to be rather interesting to me. I, like the parents from the other two districts, thought that I was there for community input and discussion. However, it seemed like MSAD 28 was announcing a de facto position to present their current proposal to their respective school board in the next month or two. The other two districts were emphatic about still being in the feedback solicitation phase. All three clearly agreed that no one district could proceed without the other two districts because of the impact on Mid-Coast School of Technology.
Yet, it seemed to me that the concerns of many of the parents from other districts received a deliberate distancing stance from MSAD 28. If the younger kids are up late for extra-curricular activities because of scheduling conflicts for the only local gymnasium, well that is simply a local logistics problem on the neighbor’s side of the fence, so to speak. The same was perceived, might have been alluded to, for longer bus routes, financial impacts, and suggested childcare challenges. MSAD 28 had already reached out to local child care providers to troubleshoot availability and the financial impact to parents was seemingly deemed unsubstantial as to be a limiting factor. Perhaps not so to the other districts.
The three districts are quite noticeably at different stages of evaluation and with differences in local concerns and resources. A comment was made that it would be interesting to see what would happen if two of the three schools were in agreement. Interesting indeed, I wonder what pressure would be put to MCST in that scenario. By suggesting a spring review, it appears to this uninitiated outsider that either MSAD 28 wants the public record to note that they are not the ones to hold up the show, or else they are hoping to coerce the cooperation of one or more districts.
They are not the only ones who might be feeling alienated.
Support for the proposed changes referenced a recent survey completed by MSAD 28 just days prior to the community forum which appears to indicate internal approval for the changes. What is not explained is what overall percentage of total possible parents replied, and how that percentage breaks down per capita by age of students. Nor was there a demographic correlation of answers to various questions vs. student populations experiencing one of two very different impacts.
Some parents, such as ourselves, did not complete the survey because we felt it was not presented to address the two proposals separately, one for proposed changes to middle and high schools, which we do support, and one for the proposed change to the elementary school, which we do not support. We had assumed that our input would be better expressed in person at the community forum. We had hoped that other potential solutions could be discussed.
Now it is clear that as far as our district seems to be concerned, the only feasible solutions are the ones currently under proposal. It’s too bad that our district didn’t solicit more opinion during the problem statement stage because now that they are already invested in a solution they will not benefit from true collaboration with the community. All they can hope for now is a rudimentary gauge of how quietly we will swallow their prescribed course of action.
Elizabeth Wintor Lantz, Constituent in MSAD 28 and parent of CRES student