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Push for later HS start time gains steam in Niskayuna

Push for later HS start time gains steam in Niskayuna

Committee recommends approval
Push for later HS start time gains steam in Niskayuna
Niskayuna High School is pictured.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

NISKAYUNA -- The push for a later start time at Niskayuna High School picked up steam Tuesday night after a panel tasked with studying the change recommended starting the school day as late as 8:30 a.m.

But high-schoolers shouldn’t set their alarms back just yet, as district officials said it would take the next year to work out details around class schedules, transportation and athletics, the most cited barriers to pediatrician-recommended start times.

After a year of planning, the high school could move to the later start time as early as fall 2019 – in time for the freshmen year for this year’s seventh-graders. The high school kicks off its first block of classes at 7:40 a.m. now, but a growing chorus of voices have called for a later start in light of mounting evidence that students’ physical and mental health, as well as academic achievement, can be improved by pushing the school day back.

A group of high school juniors last month presented research they did on the science and logistics of moving to a later start time. Armed with that research and local survey results, the students urged district officials to adopt the 8:30 a.m. start time.

“We know what we are talking about,” junior Charlotte Kokernak said when the group presented the research to the school board last month. “We are not just proposing a time because that’s when we want to start school.”

The group, as well as separate groups of students who studied the topic for their AP English class, surveyed students across the school about sleep patterns. The results suggest a large share of students get far less sleep than is considered optimal for teenagers by physicians and researchers.

With more than 200 responses, the students found around 70 percent of Niskayuna students reported receiving less than seven hours of sleep; as many as 15 percent of respondents reported receiving five or fewer hours of sleep. More than a third of respondents admitted missing a class due to sleep issues, and 60 percent said their academic ability was negatively affected by a lack of sleep.

The students ran down the challenges of shifting to an earlier start time and admitted there may be a cost to changing bus schedules. Even so, the students said the benefits would be worth it.

“I think it would be a good investment because of the mental health and academic outcomes we outlined,” junior Cecilia Cain told the school board.

Schenectady and Glens Falls high schools have moved to later start times in recent years, and other districts in the region -- Guilderland, for example -- have started to more seriously consider a change. 

The panel that voted to recommend the later start time was made up of parents, teachers and students and was part of a broader committee that also studied potential changes to how the district handles homework. That group adopted the 8:30 a.m. proposal with a 9-0 vote, with two people not voting or requesting more time to gather information. Presenting the group’s findings to the school board Tuesday, parent Deanna Bouton highlighted the student survey findings and shared data the group collected that suggested students, on average, score better on Regents tests if the corresponding class is taught later in the day.

She also acknowledged the challenges the district faces if it moves forward with a new start time: Bus schedules would need to be changed; sports practices and games would be affected by a later end to the school day, especially if other districts don’t similarly shift to a later start time; the middle school music program relies on the high school for morning practices; and the broader challenge of communicating and explaining the change to parents and district staff.

“There are certainly many things to be ironed out,” she said. “There needs to be a lot of education of the community, students, staff and everyone on the benefits of this.

But High School Principal John Rickert said on Tuesday that none of the hurdles to a later start time are insurmountable.

“I don’t see any of the factors that can’t be overcome,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting. “I definitely see it as doable.”

The school board has not formally acted to move toward the new start time.

Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. suggested after Tuesday’s meeting that the later start time is not a done deal and said it’s possible a change may not happen. But he acknowledged that reseach points strongly toward the benefits of a later start time.

“At this point, I think we can all say the science is there,” he said.

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