Milford, Amherst look at later school start times

Amherst and Milford school officials are trying to decide if there is enough community support for changing their school start times.

At a public forum organized by the Milford School Board’s school start time committee last week, board member Jennifer Siegrist said school officials are impressed with the mounting body of research into the benefits of later starts for adolescents, as well as comments from Milford parents that their teens are “really tired.”

Amherst also has a start time committee, and Superintendent Adam Steel is recommending that all Amherst and Mont Vernon schools push their start times ahead by 35 minutes. For Souhegan Cooperative High School and Amherst Middle School that would mean an 8 a.m. start.

At the Oct. 2 SAU 39 meeting, board members talked about the impact on teachers, concerns about children getting off the bus in the dark and problems with getting to after-school activities.

“We probably are the number one provider” for businesses that provide those activities,, “and I think they will adjust” to the later time, the superintendent said. And the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association is starting to move many games to 5 p.m., he said.

Flipping start times and having the elementary schools start earlier was one of the ideas that had been discussed, and Steel said the district’s transportation consultant found that doesn’t work because of the expense of extra bus routes.

More bus ridership is anticipated, he said, because a number of parents now let their kids sleep an extra hour and then drive them to school, resulting in a “huge car line” at Amherst Middle School in the morning.

As other board members focused on problems, Amherst School Board member John Glover reminded them of why they were talking about changing start times – for the well-being of students – and said he would “hate that fear of the dark would derail this very important move.”

If there is a change, it wouldn’t happen until September of 2019, and the board will decide by early December or January, because it would effect the budgets. That would give parents plenty of time to adjust their child care issues, Steel said. “We will not get 100 percent buy-in from any group,” he said.

A survey last school year of people in the Amherst and Mont Vernon school community found that 24 percent were completely opposed to the change, 45 percent gave full support and the rest of the respondants were somewhere in the middle.

Last week, the SAU board decided to continue soliciting feedback, with another survey and a public hearing to gauge support for the change.

Miford has an ongoing survey that ends Oct. 19 and is available on the school district website or on hard copies at the schools, at the public library and at the Mason school office.

At the Milford forum last week Corey Sullivan, the Souhegan Valley Boys and Girls Club operations director, noted that Milford’s Project Drive, which is designed as a therapeutic environment for students who don’t do well in a traditional setting, has the earliest start time, 7:25 a.m., a fact he called “staggering.”

The high school and middle school start at 7:40 and 7:35 respectively.

Siegrist said the committee will give the school board its recommendation later this month.

A couple dozen people were at the meeting. David Wilson, a Milford parent, talked about the big “ripple effect” of changing the times and said there shouldn’t be a change just because some parents can’t make their kids go to bed early.

But Siegrist said the research into teens and sleep is compelling and “we want to have a school district based on the best practices.” The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends schools start no earlier than 8:30, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that early start times are linked to depression, obesity, diabetes and an increased risk of accidents, both in school and on the roads.

Scientists say teenagers need 8 1/2 to nine hours of sleep a night, but changes in their hormonal systems at puberty prevent them from falling asleep before 11 p.m.

Teenagers’ circadian rhythms – their internal sleep/wake cycle – are anywhere from two to three hours later than children and adults, they say, meaning it’s difficult for teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m. At the same time their growing bodies and minds need more sleep than adults.