SCHOOL COMMITTEE NEWS: New School Start Time Options To Be Presented Soon

WILMINGTON, MA — At last week’s Wilmington School Committee meeting, leaders of the district’s School Start Time Committee gave an update on its work to date and future plans.

Superintendent Dr. Glenn Brand began the presentation by reminding the School Committee that the start times at Wilmington’s secondary schools are “considered by many as extremely early and at odds with what research identifies as appropriate for young adolescent students.”

Brand noted that Wilmington High School (7:40am) is falling out of step with many of its large Middlesex Valley league counterparts, several of which have recently made changes to their start times, including Arlington (8:30am), Burlington (8:35am), Melrose (8:15am), Watertown (8:30am), and Winchester (8:30am).

Brand explained the timeline — the School Start Time Committee’s final report, complete with different options for the School Committee to consider, will be presented on May 15, 2020. Outreach to the community, explaining the different options, will take place from June 2020 to September 2020. The School Committee will vote on proposed start time changes in October 2020. Any start time changes wouldn’t go into effect until Fall 2021.

The School Start Time Committee has been divided into three subcommittees:

  • Research & Education (led by Bonnie Gorrasi)
  • Communication & Outreach (led by Jonathan Merenda)
  • Scenario & Option Development (led by Kevin Welch)

Each subcommittee chair gave a brief overview of their work to the School Committee.

The Research & Education Subcommittee is reviewing contemporary research around start times and gathering insight into surrounding school districts that have made changes to their start times.

“Teens are biologically wired to need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. Teens who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to suffer from symptoms of depression, engage in risky behavior like drinking and using illicit drugs, and perform poorly in school,” according to the subcommittee’s presentation. “Leading organizations and sleep scientists recommend that schools start at 8:30am or later.”

The Community & Outreach Subcommittee is beginning to disseminate information about the committee, and will soon gather feedback, opinions and perspectives regarding different start time options.

“We want to make this process as open, transparenet and accessible as possible,” said WHS Assistant Principal Jonathan Merenda. “We’re working on many different opportunities to have a voice and a place to find and share information.”

Merenda and his subcommittee members have recently published a website that will include timelines, calendars, FAQs, surveys, research, resources, meeting notes, meeting agenda, and a contact form for questions and comments.

The subcommittee is also planning to develop pamphlet, host town hall meetings, maintain social media outlets, create an informational webinar, hold student forums at all grade levels, and organize interviews with WCTV.

“My hope is every single parent and guardian in Wilmington is well aware of this work and not caught off guard,” Superintendent Brand told the School Committee. “When you make decisions in the fall, there will be wide-scale awareness by our community that you’ve been engaged in this work.”

The Scenario & Options Development Subcommittee is working closely with the district’s transportation department and its bus company to develop start time scenarios and options district-wide.

Shawsheen Assistant Principal Kevin Welch discussed some general parameters that the subcommittee has already set:

  • No student should be at a bus stop prior to 7am.
  • Secondary start times will be based on current research.
  • High school end time will be adjusted keeping in mind extra curricular activities.
  • Keep student day the same number of hours they currently are (with possible exception of Boutwell & Wildwood)

Welch indicated that bussing makes any change to school start times difficult. He noted that, during their research, his subcommittee discovered that 2-8 buses for most schools are running at or below 50% capacity. And the number of busses used for each school varies widely: Middle School (16), Woburn Street (12), North (12), Shawsheen (11), West (11), Wilmington High (9), Wildwood (5), and Boutwell (4).

“It is a puzzle when we’re picking different start times,” Welch noted.

A basic bus pass program may be be initiated next school year to allow the district to get a better gauge of bus ridership for each school. Parents and guardians would simply be asked to sign up for bussing during the annual sign off process in Aspen as the beginning of the school year. There would be no fees associated with the program.

The School Committee thanked the subcommittee for its thorough presentation.

“I’m so pleased to see the work that’s gone into all this. It’s so well organized, The subcommittee is doing such fabulous work and we’re so grateful,” said School Committee Chair Jennifer Bryson. 

“I’m a teacher in Boston Public Schools. Boston paid lip service to all of this work. 3-4 years ago, they sent out an email with all the new school start times. Everyone freaked out. They had to roll it back. It was a mess. A debacle,” added School Committee member Jay Samaha. “I really appreciate the process Wilmington has chosen to undertake. The community outreach will be a huge part so everyone knows why this is so important.”

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