"Mixed" Response as Portsmouth Schools Try Later Start Time

Aug 31, 2017

Credit Jason Moon - NHPR

Schools in Portsmouth started a bit later this week—at 8:20 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m. The idea is that if kids are allowed to sleep later, they’ll be better prepared to learn once they get to school. Schools in the towns of Durham, Madbury, and Lee as well as the Inter-Lakes School District in the Laconia area also are starting late this year.

Steve Zadravec is superintendent of Portsmouth's schools. He’s been a supporter of these later start times. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

Middle and high school students in Portsmouth started on Monday. In these first days, how have students been responding to the later start times?

I can honestly say it’s been mixed. We have a couple of days really to go on so far and this has been a change for all of our middle and high school students, to start a bit later. I think we knew all along this would be an adjustment, so for some students, it’s that adjustment. Some love it, have taken advantage of the extra start time in the morning.

It being the first week of school, I will say that my impressions are students are a little excited or anxious or whatever so this may not be the best sample week to tell because students may be up early and trying to get going anyway. Overall the impression from students has been positive.

Along with a later start time comes a later end time, right?

Right.

How’s that been working out?

It’s been working out pretty well. We knew going in that one of the things we wanted to address with the later end times as well because of after school activities, sports, etc. And everything has been scheduled to adapt to that later time. We’ve looked to some after school programming at the middle school that’s going to get off the ground.

Again, I think that’s the piece that people are adapting to and I think, as we get into more of the routine, people will just get used to this as the new normal for the day.

Some parents have argued that if a child is tired when he or she gets to school, it’s because the parents haven’t been strict enough about making them put away the screens and go to bed. In adjusting to this new start time, what role, in your view, do parents have?

It’s not so much parents demanding kids fall asleep. You can’t demand a kid fall asleep if their sleep rhythms are such that they can’t fall asleep at a certain time. We knew that the adolescent sleep cycles really warranted us to look at a later start time because students naturally stay up a little later and stay in a little later as they hit adolescence.

Some studies suggest that teenagers  have a biological need to wake up around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. So does the 8:20 a.m. start time go far enough toward meeting their biological needs?

That’s a great question. We’re looking at this and looking at the effects for kids on this that we see at school. Some would argue that it should be later.

Would you argue that?

For me, it’s too early to tell. I do have a sample of two in my house—a middle- and high-schooler. And I think, you know, this timing seems to be working out pretty well, but not everybody is the same, either, so what we’re trying to do is figure out what is it that we can do? Is this change big enough?

What we didn’t want to do is make a change of 15 or 20 or even 30 minutes and expect that was going to have an impact. So we went for, you know, starting 50 minutes later and we’ll be looking at it throughout the year. Will we see a decrease in tardies? Will we see students more alert in first period class? We’ll talk to students and parents as we go through this year?

How are you measuring the success of this later start time?

That gets to some of those measures I was just talking about: attendance, tardies, performance. We’ll want to look at participation in after-school activities. Is that being impacted at all?

And when you say performance, do you mean test scores?

It could be test scores. It could be grades. It could be surveys to teachers and students. In a number of ways we would hope that what we’re doing is positioning students to be more successful throughout their school day and it’s not just academics, it’s their overall wellness. So are we seeing any decrease in some of the social/emotional pieces and really looking at the whole student. This idea is really about the whole child, so that’s something we’ll be paying attention to in talking to a lot of people as we go, because we want to have an impact in setting kids up to be as successful as they can.