Amherst schools weigh benefits, costs of starting secondary day 75 minutes later
BULLETIN FILE PHOTO Amherst Superintendent of Schools Maria Geryk Purchase photo reprints »
AMHERST — The Regional School Committee will vote Tuesday on whether the benefits of having secondary students start classes 75 minutes later justifies a disruption of sports programs.
The committee will consider a report from Superintendent Maria Geryk that finds a 9 a.m. start for the Amherst Regional middle and high schools the most feasible of three scenarios under consideration. Tuesday’s meeting, in the ARHS library, will start an hour earlier than usual, at 6 p.m.
Two years ago, a task force composed of parents, teachers and administrators undertook a study of the issue. It found that a later start at the secondary schools would enable students to get more sleep and could have “positive outcomes in academic performance, attendance, mental health and overall health.”
After many public hearings, School Committee discussions, and hours of research on the impact on sports, Geryk released a report Thursday. She rejected two scenarios because each would cost $1.2 million to implement and issued a lukewarm endorsement of a third, saying it would have minimal costs.
Currently, the elementary school day runs from 8:40 a.m. to 3:05 p.m., and the secondary day starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 2:20 p.m. The 55-minute difference in the schedules enables the school district to use the same buses to pick up students at the two levels.
According to Geryk, the School Committee should “consider implementation” of a schedule that would make the elementary day run from 8:10 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. while the secondary schools would start at 9 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m. This option would hike busing costs by $44,400, but the budget could absorb this increase, she said.
“The primary consideration for the School Committee is whether the cost to the athletic program outweighs the research-supported benefits for secondary students,” she wrote in her report.
If the committee votes for this plan, it would not be implemented before next fall.
Under this scenario, known as “flip and move,” the boys varsity golf team and the Alpine and Nordic Skiing programs, which together attract 54 students, would be eliminated, largely because of the loss of 75 minutes of daylight.
In addition, the junior varsity girls field hockey and boys and girls lacrosse teams, which attract 42 students, would probably be eliminated because of transportation problems because most other school districts would be unwilling to accommodate Amherst’s different schedule and because of problems finding officials, Geryk wrote.
The boys varsity ice hockey team, attracting 12 students, would be seriously affected because it would lose its scheduled practice time at Orr Rink at Amherst College.
Numerous other teams would be somewhat affected by the later start, because of later end times of practices, added costs or the difficulty of finding indoor practice space during the months when Daylight Savings Time is not in effect, Geryk wrote. These include all soccer and track teams and the varsity cross country and field hockey teams, she wrote. A total of 292 students are involved in these sports.
School Committee members have had a diversity of opinions on this proposal. Kip Fonsh, chairman of the Regional School Committee, said Thursday, “Right now, if I had to vote, I would vote against it.” He has questioned the research showing that a later starting time helps improve teenagers’ attention.
Katherine Appy, who chairs the Amherst School Committee and sits on the regional panel, said she will vote yes because the district’s top priority is to provide the best opportunity for students to learn.
“The research that I’ve read on this topic states that a later start time will benefit the learning of all kids,” she said. “This is too compelling to set aside and ignore. And the population that a later start time would help the most would be our most vulnerable kids.”
Geryk rejected an alternative plan that would have both the elementary and secondary schools start at 8:10 a.m. and end at 2:35 p.m., with separate bus runs. This would require a doubling of the number of buses and vans, at a cost of $1.2 million, she said.
The other rejected scenario would have the elementary school day run from 8:10 a.m. to 2:35 p.m. and the secondary day from 8:30 a.m. to 2:55 p.m. Adult monitors would be required on each bus because students from kindergarten through 12th grade would ride together, and 11 more buses would be needed for dedicated Shutesbury, Leverett and Pelham runs to get elementary students to school on time, she said. It would also cost an extra $1.2 million, she said.