Published in the August 25, 2016 edition.


WAKEFIELD — Sometime this fall, the School Department will be initiating a “community conversation” about the idea of a later start time for Wakefield Memorial High School.

Superintendent Dr. Kim Smith reminded the School Committee this week of a joint resolution created last year by the Middlesex League school superintendents agreeing to explore the possibility of later high school start times with the idea of coming up with an agreement for the 2017-2018 school year.

Smith referred to an article published last year by the Centers for Disease Control that discussed the idea that early school start times are especially difficult for adolescents. The CDC article notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later to allow students the opportunity to get the recommended amount of sleep on school nights, about 8.5-9.5 hours. According to the CDC study, insufficient sleep is common among high school students and is thought to be associated with several health risks including being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and using drugs, as well as poor academic performance.

Smith said that she finds the research compelling but acknowledged that changing the school start times would have a ripple effect, impacting parents work schedules and students’ after-school jobs and activities. While a later start time is primarily seen as benefiting high school students, Smith noted that such a change would also impact school bus schedules for lower grades.

Currently, Wakefield Memorial High School starts at 7:30 a.m.

Smith stressed that by signing the Middlesex League superintendents’ joint statement on later start times for high schools she was merely committing to exploring the possibility with the community. She said she has not made up her mind on the issue.

Smith said that she had discussed with School Committee Chairman Greg Liakos a possible timetable for the “community conversation” on later school start times. She and Liakos agreed that it made sense to have the discussion earlier in the school year, before any public process related to a new or renovated high school begins early next year.

Smith said that she would of course want to bring Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio into the loop early on. Then, in September, she said that she would meet with her school leadership team to gather their input. In October, she proposed a faculty and staff forum on the issue along with an online survey. In November or December she proposed having a public hearing at a School Committee meeting as well as an online survey to gather public feedback.

Smith also noted that she has been invited to attend a workshop planned for later this fall on the topic of later high school start times to be presented by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC).

School Committee member Anne Danehy said that she was convinced that later school start times were beneficial for teenagers but acknowledged that there were a host of logistical issues for teachers and parents that would have to be addressed. Smith mentioned a concern that school absenteeism might increase if parents have to leave for work before making sure their teens are out of bed.

School Committee member Thomas Markham wanted to know who would be sponsoring this conversation with the community over later school start times.

“Are we prepared to take a position?” Markham asked. “Or are we just receiving input?” Markham also suggested the possibility of bringing in a guest speaker on the topic.

School Committee member Christopher Callanan observed that any change in school start times would push the end of the school day back. He noted that it couldn’t happen on its own for just one community as it would impact after school sports schedules and game times.

Smith noted that that was the reason that the Middlesex League proposed looking at the issue as a group. Smith also noted that any change in game times between schools would only be to later start times, not earlier.

School Committee member Rob Tiro stressed the importance of getting information out to the community early in order to facilitate an informed discussion.

School Committee member RJ Masse wanted to know how much later the High School would start, if it were to happen in Wakefield.

Smith said that she was thinking about possibly starting at 8 a.m.

Masse said that thinking back to his high school years, he felt that getting up early taught him some discipline. He also wondered if getting out of school later in the day would affect students’ ability to get after-school jobs.

Masse said that he could support pushing the high school start time back to 7:45 a.m. or 8 a.m. “But much later is pushing it,” he said.

After hearing comments from School Committee members, Smith suggested pushing the timeline for the community conversation on later school start times back by a month or so in order to allow time to get the research out to the public and possibly line up some speakers.