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Northampton School Committee to rule in June on later high school start time

By a vote of 4-6, members rejected a motion to approve the recommendation of an ad hoc committee to push the high school start time back from 7:30 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. beginning in September.

Voting in favor of the plan — which the study committee said would not increase costs or change schedules at city middle and elementary schools — were Mayor David J. Narkewicz, the board’s chairman, and members Blue DuVal, Howard Moore and Stephanie Pick.

Voting against were Vice Chairman Edward Zuchowski and members Alden Bourne, Downey Meyer, Michael Flynn, Lisa Minnick and Andrew Shelffo.

Bourne and Shelffo said they wanted more time to consider the plan, while Flynn said he wanted a chance to hear from his constituents.

Minnick said she was concerned that the later-start proposal was based on an earlier board decision to eliminate busing to the high school — a decision that could change if the schools receive more funding through a proposed property tax override.

“I want to see what the plan looks like if busing returns,” Minnick said.

Immediately following the vote to reject the study committee’s recommendation, the School Committee voted unanimously to bring the group’s later-start plan back for a decision at the board’s June meeting.

Lucy Hartry, a former school board member who heads the 10-member study committee, said she wasn’t surprised by the school board’s decision to essentially delay a decision on the start time plan until June.

“I’m slightly disappointed,” she said. “But even though the community has been looking at this issue for many years, they want to be deliberative. I don’t blame them. This is a big decision.”

Hartry said she is confident the school board will approve the study committee’s plan next month because it addresses concerns that have been raised over the many years the start time issue has been debated.

“I think it will pass,” she said. “This is for the greater good of the students.”

The committee’s plan is based on research showing teens who get more sleep do better in school.

It achieves a later start for the high school by shortening the school day 10 minutes by taking one minute off of each 90-minute class and reducing “passing times” between classes from eight to six minutes.

In her presentation to the school board, Hartry emphasized that the change still meets state requirements for instructional time. She said it would also still leave teachers time to work with students who need help after school — or beforehand, an option that’s not available under the current schedule.

The committee also investigated the effects of an 8:15 a.m. school bell on transportation, athletics, extracurricular activities, the ability of NHS students to take classes at Smith College and child-care issues for families.

In each of those areas, Hartry told the board, “the results of our research convinced members that all the obstacles were addressed and we have workable solutions.”

For example, of the 14 fall sports teams at the high school, only the field hockey teams would be affected by the later dismissal time of 2:35 p.m., the committee’s plan states. That problem could be addressed by allowing the team to leave early for the last three away games of the year.

As for extracurricular activities, Hartry said the committee consulted with leaders and members of several NHS clubs and were told a later dismissal time would have little or no impact on their activities.

Still, some school board members questioned whether starting the school day later would allow adequate time for high school sports teams to travel to away games.

Others raised concerns about whether a later start time would limit the number of students taking classes at Smith College.

The public comment portion of the meeting was dominated by supporters of a later start time at NHS.

“In my first period classes, half the students struggle to stay awake,” NHS sophomore Gina Whalen told the board. “Starting later would take the edge off the exhaustion.”

Rene Wetstein, a high school parent and longtime proponent of a later school bell, urged the school board to act on the study group’s recommendation.

“I hope tonight you vote on this,” she said. “Because it’s May and we need to know in September that this change has been made.”

In addition to Hartry, other members of the start-time study committee are NHS students Ezekiel Baskin and Johanna Renard, teachers Janet Hicks and Randy Gordon; School Committee members DuVal and Moore; parent Harvey Hill; business owner Steve Herrell; and community member Bess Detmold.

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