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Amherst may start school 30 minutes later

AMHERST – It’s taken 30 years, but it now appears the Amherst-Mont Vernon school district is poised to change its start times to allow middle and high school students to get more sleep.

A committee is recommending that all district schools adjust their starting times by 30 minutes, which would mean an 8 a.m. start at the middle school and high school.

At a community forum last week, Porter Dodge, the district’s director of operations and retired Amherst Middle School principal, told parents no decision has been made, but the current school schedule is not good for teenagers.

“We’re not doing them good service,” he said, citing research and recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Teenagers are not getting enough sleep on school nights, research shows, leading to physical, mental and psychological problems. Later start times would let adolescents, whose natural sleep rhythms have them awake until at least 11 p.m., sleep later in the morning. Getting much-needed sleep should lead to better grades, test scores, athletic performance and overall quality of life, researchers maintain.

There were a few dozen people in the audience, mostly mothers, and they reviewed concerns, mostly about the effect of later start times on the younger children.

In general, though, the parents seemed to support the change for the middle and high school, and some wanted a later time.

A pediatric nurse wanted to know if the district is going far enough – doing what research shows is

optimal, meaning a start time no earlier than 8:30 a.m., but Dodge said 8 a.m. is the “drop dead” earliest, because of athletic schedules.

Transportation consultants evaluated three plans for the district, he said, and advised that reversing the bus schedule for the lower and upper grades is not a viable option and merging the elementary and secondary grades would be expensive and inefficient.

The best option, the experts said, is maintaining the two tiers of bus service and moving the start times forward for both, with Souhegan High School and Amherst Middle School starting at 8 a.m., and Clark-Wilkins and Mont Vernon Village School starting at 9:05 a.m.

Dodge acknowledged the disadvantages, including the disruption of parents’ schedules and the effects on sports and after-school activities. But other districts have done it, and “it can be done,” he said.

Dodge has been with the district for 37 years and he said attempts to alter the start times here aren’t new. When he was a middle school teacher in the 1980s, teachers would talk about how tired the children were, and a committee proposed flipping the schools’ schedules, but there had been too much opposition.

Since then, the volume of research supporting later start times has grown. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that middle and high schools delay start times until 8:30 a.m. or later to allow students to get more sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the CDC report that more than 72 percent of high school students are not getting enough sleep on weeknights, and lack of sleep is linked to obesity, diabetes, attention disorders and behavior problems.

Some of the parents said they had looked at the research.

It’s not so much that a longer period in bed helps teens, said one, but that the quality of the sleep, and sleep later in the morning, is most beneficial for that age group.

“I follow the discussions across the state,” said another one.

Terri Behm, a member of the Amherst School Board and the start time committee, said that with the current schedule “we are shortchanging our middle and high school students. We are not doing our best for them.

“I could lock my daughter up, and she is not going to go to sleep” early because her body’s sleep rhythm will not allow it. “This isn’t my opinion. This is fact,” she said. Teenagers “settle into their deepest, restorative sleep at just the time we are waking them up.”

Yes, the changes can be a hassle for adults, she said, but there are work-arounds. The 30-minute change is “not a perfect choice, but it’s the best choice we have … and it has real tangible benefits,” including fewer accidents for new drivers.

Some of the parents said the elementary age children’s peak learning hours are in the morning. Larry Ballard, a parent and teachers’ union president, said Clark-Wilkins’ teachers believe mid-afternoon is not the most productive time for learning.

If Amherst and Mont Vernon change their start times, they will join a growing list of cities and towns in New Hampshire, including Windham and Portsmouth.

In October, the Keene School Board voted in a new school schedule for 2020-21, with the middle and high schools beginning no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and no later than 9 a.m. A Milford committee is also considering a start time change.

The Amherst district is also surveying the community, and Superintendent Adam Steel is expected to make a recommendation next month.

A video of the Dec. 5 Later Start Community Forum is on the SAU website.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@nashuatelegraph .com.