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Amherst regional schools won’t change start time

The Amherst Regional School Committee on Tuesday defeated a proposal by Superinrtendent 
Maria Geryk to move the start time of the secondary schools later to 9 a.m. Instead there will be no change in the 7:45 a.m. start.

The Amherst Regional School Committee on Tuesday defeated a proposal by Superinrtendent Maria Geryk to move the start time of the secondary schools later to 9 a.m. Instead there will be no change in the 7:45 a.m. start. Purchase photo reprints »

AMHERST — The Regional School Committee voted 7-2 Tuesday against a proposal to change the daily schedules to allow students in grades 7 through 12 to start their classes 75 minutes later.

The vote is the culmination of two years of studying plans designed to enable teenagers to be more alert in class by getting more sleep the night before. About 100 people attended Tuesday’s meeting and about 20 addressed the committee, including several student athletes whose sports would be at risk if the schedule change were adopted.

“If you vote in favor, it could be the biggest blunder any School Committee has ever made,” said parent David Noonan of Tanglewood Road. “The whole principle is based on the assumption that if you push the school day forward, kids will go to bed at the same time they go to bed now. The problem is, you never asked students what they would do. They would stay up later.”

The committee voted to keep the current schedule, in which the secondary schools start at 7:45 a.m. and the elementary schools at 8:40 a.m. Members defeated a proposal suggested by Superintendent Maria Geryk to start the secondary schools at 9 a.m. and the elementary schools at 8:15 a.m.

Committee Chairman Kip Fonsh of Leverett said he opposes interfering with family schedules, adding that the amount of time students spend with quality teachers is more critical to academic success. “This is a far more important conversation than what time kids wake up and go to sleep,” he said.

Member Rob Spence of Amherst said he favors a later start time, but the 9 a.m. proposal has too drastic an impact on athletics. Geryk has said that five teams would probably have to be eliminated if the proposal were adopted, because of complications resulting from a 3:30 p.m. dismissal time.

Committee member Lawrence O’Brien of Amherst said the school district needs to focus on other changes taking place, such as in curriculum and teaching. “I’m concerned that another change would be initiative overload,” he said.

Member Richard Hood of Amherst said the cost to sports programs was too high for him to support the proposal. “Sports teach kids things that could be more important than what they learn in class, like how to fail and get up and try again,” he said.

Committee members Katherine Appy of Amherst and Michael DeChiara of Shutesbury were the plan’s only supporters.

“My mandate is to represent all students,” Appy said. “Research shows that later starts help students who are economically and academically challenged. Isn’t it our mission to work on closing the achievement gap? This would be a significant step in that direction.”

DeChiara said he would prefer a middle course such as starting the secondary schools at 8:30 p.m., but Geryk had said that would be too expensive because of extra busing costs. He suggested starting all the schools 15 minutes later and said he hopes the discussion will continue.

“Our core responsibility is to maximize learning,” and that can be impaired if students are “stressed out,” he said. “If we’re willing to look at academic cuts, we have to look at everything else as well. Nothing is sacrosanct.”

The majority of parents and students addressing the committee Tuesday were opposed to the proposed schedule change.

Bridget Dahill of Cottage Street, whose daughters are athletes, said sports are important to girls’ self-esteem. Most research defines a later start as 8 a.m., she said.

“I need to be at work at 8 a.m.,” she said. “If school starts at 9, how does my daughter get out the door on time?”

Leah Goldman, a senior and athlete at Amherst Regional High School, said she has a job that starts at 5 p.m. “This asks me to quit my job to participate in sports,” she said.

James Brennan of Kestrel Lane said Amherst has a reputation for having the best schools in the area, and that’s a testament to the way they currently operate. “My dad used say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” he said.

Several parents argued in favor of the change. Kemper Carlsen of Leverett said research on teenagers’ brain development and circadian rhythms shows that they are not fully awake until 10 a.m. “I think the science is there,” she said.

Lydia Peterson of Leverett said the change would move Amherst into the 21st century.

“Education should be first, busing and sports second, not the other way around,” she said.

The fact that a school system can't make this change even when the push comes from the Superintendent, and even given the strength of the evidence about its value, shows why we need a sea change in our approach to this issue. It's time to stop treating sleep and healthy school start times as negotiable budget items, and instead treat them as the public health and equity issue they are. Joining forces across the country, as we're trying to do at www.StartSchoolLater.net, may be the answer.

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