NORWALK, Conn. – The plan to push back Norwalk public high school start times by an hour was approved Tuesday on a 6-2-0 vote.
Norwalk Public Schools will now get to work on the details of the plan, Board of Education member Bruce Kimmel said, with former Board Chairman Mike Lyons, in his last Board meeting, pointing out that every major improvement Norwalk has made was done without having “every answer” before the project was approved. Although some have complained that the decision had been made before last week’s public forum, Board members emphasized that they had heard the citizenry.
Board Chairman Mike Barbis said feedback has been 50-50 but also pointed out that out of 90,000 citizens and 3,800 public high school students, there were 50 emails and 16 public comments before Tuesday’s meeting.
More than 20 people spoke to the Board, most of them in favor of the plan to change the high school start time from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., in the 2020-21 school year.
“If we are truly concerned about the future health of our students, we should try and support the studies that are being put out there. The argument that we the older generation is just fine is not a fair argument. Students today are far more over-scheduled than students were 20 years ago. I know this because I have been teaching for more than 20 years,” said Daniela Gomorrah, mother to a third grader and owner of a small business, an after-school music program.
Drew Patrick, dad to a fifth grader and a seventh grader, and a public educator, encouraged people to read the report prepared by the School Start Committee because “It’s thoughtful, it’s purposeful.”
“By engaging not just students and parents in this discussion, but by engaging mental health professionals and other health professionals in the process, I think the outcome that produced report really describes a thoughtful approach, purposeful change,” he said. “It’s not going to be perfect and it’s certainly not going to make everybody happy. But it demonstrates the kind of engagement that I think produces our best work as a community.”
“I have heard arguments such as ‘teenagers will just stay up later or minority students will suffer,’ arguments that have already been refuted by scientific evidence, making it clear that most people have not been bothered to read the committee’s report,” Donna Gilchrist said. “There’s also the argument ‘we all did it and survived.’ Well, a lot of us grew up without seat belts too, and I haven’t heard anyone advocating against them.”
But Marjorie Madden said, “We cannot legislate students getting more sleep. And for us to think that is ludicrous.”
People are “bantering around” the expected $457,000 cost of this move as though it’s insignificant, and “How dare we?” she said. “That’s a lot of money for buses. In a town with mostly working class people, I just can’t see the rationale.”
“I don’t think anybody in the room disputes the science,” Republican-endorsed Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton said. “…I think the concern is we delay the start time, the kids are still going to just stay up… an hour later.”
She also decried the price tag, asserting, “Over the last six years, our school budget has grown by about $40 million. By the same token, things like our roads and our sidewalks, and our sewer systems have not been funded.”
Mary Smith said every parent knows about changing their sleep schedule – for the sake of their children. When the baby arrives there’s one schedule and when the child enters elementary school, there’s another.
“What did I do? I changed my schedule, and I made it work. So I just really think we can do it. It might be uncomfortable, it might not be easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not right to do,” she said.
But Tracy Smith spoke for working parents when she asked, “Has anyone thought about when a senior or something has to get their sibling off the bus?”
“Are we thinking about the elementary school children? I hear a lot of people speaking about what’s going to affect the high schoolers and I get it, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “… Some of our parents are … not legally in this country. When the boss tells them that they have to be on the job at seven o’clock, their action is they’re at that job at seven o’clock or they don’t have an employment.”
“Remember, first and foremost, this is a health issue. We’re doing it primarily because it’s a health issue,” said Kimmel, a member of the School Start Time Committee, pointing out that California just mandated that high schools start no sooner than 8:30 a.m.
But Bryan Meek spoke of a local “traffic tsunami” due to numerous Connecticut Department of Transportation projects and “it’s just traffic has been a nightmare in the city the last six months and it seems like it’s getting worse. I would hate to see for this to fail, for reasons out of our control.”
Sarah LeMieux commented that though many think this a done deal, “it was a very difficult decision to make …I reached out to and interacted with a lot of stakeholders.”
“The Board of Education is not alone. It’s nine individuals with different constituencies have different ways of thinking about problem solving,” she said, although it appears to be an eight-member Board currently: District B representative Erik Anderson was not present and hasn’t been at a Board meeting in months.
Mayor Harry Rilling attended but did not speak. His vote wasn’t needed as a tiebreaker as Meek and Barbis were the only no votes.
“I do support the initiative,” Meek said. “… I just think we’re setting ourselves up for a big fall here” given the “traffic tsunami.”
Barbis said he’s gone back and forth on the issue but with the current influx of immigrant children needing special services, and expected $1.7 million bump to the school budget next year and a $1.2 million special appropriation needed this year, “We have a lot of costs where we’re maxed out.”
“I just want to rebut that point,” Barbara Meyer-Mitchell said, pointing out that the City of Norwalk planned a $6 million drawdown in 2018-19, instead there’s a $6 million surplus. “A half million dollars not going to break the bank on this initiative.”
Julie Corbett said it’s not just the “slightly under 4,000” kids in high school now, it’s “every single high school student in the future.”
“I think about how this will impact my own family… I think about the impact of chronic sleep deprivation,” she said. “…This is not about test scores at all. This is about social emotional learning, and the social emotional health of our students.”
Heidi Keyes and Meyer-Mitchell also stressed health.
Lyons drew upon his former experience as a Common Council member to offer a perspective on the need to work out the plan’s details.
“In every project that you come up with a Norwalk someone will point out, ‘It isn’t perfect, therefore we shouldn’t do it,’” he said. “And if we listened to that, we wouldn’t have an aquarium and we wouldn’t have this City Hall, we wouldn’t have a community college and a lot of other things that have been done over the years.”