SCHOOL COMMITTEE RACE Q&A: Samaha, Newhouse & Fennelly Discuss School Start Time Changes

WILMINGTON, MA — Jesse Fennelly, Jay Samaha, and incumbent Jo Newhouse are running for the three seats up for grabs in this year’s School Committee race.

Despite running unopposed, Wilmington Apple felt it was important for readers to get to know the candidates a bit more. Wilmington Apple is asking the candidates weekly questions leading up to the April 27 Town Election.

This week’s question: Superintendent Brand recently presented the School Committee with a plan to evaluate and potentially change the current start times at Wilmington Schools. A Start Time Committee will be formed next school year and issue a report to the School Committee next spring. Without the benefit of that report — at the onset of the discussion — do you support earlier start times for our younger students and later start times for our Middle School & High School students? Why or why not?

Below are the candidates’ responses, in their own words:

Jesse Fennelly

I’m pleased to see that Dr. Brand and the School Committee are beginning this discussion. Without seeing the report, and understanding there are a number of variables that will need to be weighed and considered, tentatively I am inclined to support this initiative. Research has shown that moving the start time back for middle and high school students can have positive impacts in all aspects of those students’ lives. The additional sleep in the morning is beneficial for both mental and physical health as well as learning during school hours. However, there are still many factors which I think play an important role in this discussion and, ultimately, if I would support this change or not.

First, how will the new start times impact those at lower grade levels? While the change in times could have a positive effect on middle and high school students, would it have a negative effect on younger students starting their day earlier? Is there support in the community? I understand that it is likely that we would ever come to a unanimous consensus on something like this, but is there enough support from parents who will also have to change their schedules to make this change work? How will this change impact WPS as it relates to other school districts in the area? We are fortunate to have a robust extracurricular program in Wilmington. However, if we change school start/end times, will this have a negative impact on our ability to participate in things like sports programs?

As I said, I think on the surface this is a good idea. I am pleased that we as a community are at least having the conversation. I am inclined to be supportive of this idea, without the benefit of seeing the report, as there continues to be evidence and research supporting this. That said, my hope would be, as a candidate and a potential school committee member in the next school year, that the report looks at all scenarios and variables and presents a well thought out, comprehensive plan. I look forward to reading it!

Jesse Fennelly
Jesse Fennelly

Jo Newhouse (Incumbent)

As a starting point, I agree with Dr. Brand’s timeline, so the district can adequately research all of its options and any impacts our district and families may face with these changes. It is important to have all information to be able to make the best decision for our students and the district as a whole.

Without yet having the benefit of this research, at the onset I am leaning towards supporting later start times for our Middle and High School students. There are a number of studies that show the importance of sleep for adolescents. As a nation we are seeing an increase of social and emotional needs in adolescents and according to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation is a chronic health issue facing our teens today. With sleep deprivation, many adolescents face emotional and behavioral issues, health issues and lower performance across many aspects of their lives. I am not sure I support earlier start times for the younger students at this time, as I would like to see more information. Obviously, we need to weigh the benefits of all potential changes against any adverse impacts that they would have on students, families and the overall administration of the district.

Jo Newhouse
Jo Newhouse

Jay Samaha

I support later start times for Middle School and High School students. Typically the trade-off with later start times for older students is earlier start times for younger students. At this point in the process, however, it is unclear that this trade-off is what must happen in the Wilmington Public Schools. This is a difficult and impactful issue that involves many factors including a possible increase in the budget, disruption to family schedules, interference in after school activities, changes to the CARES program, shifts in when and how many busses will be needed, and overwhelming evidence that supports later start times for teenagers.

At first pass it is might be easy to say, “Hey, I get up early every morning, my kid can too!” or “ the Middle and High Schools have had early start times for years and we’ve made it work for my family so why change?” I, too, used to think this way. However when you delve into the research it becomes clear that this isn’t just a case of lazy teenagers–sleep deprivation in young people is a health crisis. For over twenty years study after study has shown that teenagers who do not get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight, suffer from depression, participate in risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking, and doing drugs, and have lower grades. In fact, I have been unable to find any research that has found that early start times are not impacting our young people negatively. One study in particular conducted by Brown University tracked a group of students who shifted from an 8:30 start time to a 7:20 start time in the transition between 8th grade and 9th grade. This study found that close to half of the participants had sleep patterns similar to those who suffer from narcolepsy even though they did not have it. In addition, not one of the students in the study made an optimal adjustment and got 8.25 hours of sleep. Many studies have looked at the biorhythms of young people and found that their internal clocks are set up for staying up later and sleeping later. The Academy of Pediatrics has recommended middle and high schools start at 8:30 am. The Centers for Disease Control have recommended that school officials learn more about the research connecting sleep and school start times and recognize that good sleep hygiene in combination with later school start times will enable adolescents to be healthier and better academic achievers.

After taking a look at study after study after study I have concluded that it would be negligent on the part of the School Committee to not pursue later school start times for our Middle and High Schools. However, when thinking practically about this, we need to make sure that the steps we take are the right ones for our students, families, and community. Dr. Brand’s overview of the process is measured and intelligent. Any changes to start times would not be in effect until 2021 at the earliest. I am interested in hearing what the School Start Time committee finds. Many surrounding districts have made shifts to later start times and I am curious about how they have impacted these communities.

I am a teacher in the Boston Public Schools and the decision to shift to later school start times was made without the support of the community. Boston’s plan to shift caused such an outcry that they quickly abandoned the plan. This is clearly NOT the way Wilmington should handle things. We need to educate our friends and neighbors about the impact of poor sleeping habits. As parents we need to discuss these impacts with our children. We need to set limits about late night video games and social media use. We need to be aware of the sleep patterns of our teens. We need to be in this together for the health of our community.

Jay Samaha
Jay Samaha

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