Correction, 4:20 p.m.: Mike Barbis made no definitive statements in support of the plan to change high school start times.
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk Public Schools says it wants to make high school start times later as a matter of public health. Norwalk high school students and teachers are pushing back.
“I don’t believe kids are gonna be getting more sleep is this we’re just going to adjust to this hour later,” Jared, a Brien McMahon High School freshman, said Monday to the Board of Education. “…The only reason why I am not sleeping that much is because there’s homework.”
He continued, “We’re going to lose teachers if we change the start times because they’re already barely seeing their kids. My world history teacher has very young children and sees them four times a week. Changing the start time will have them changing their whole schedule around and they’re just going to have to leave McMahon.”
Board of Education members plan to vote Tuesday on the proposal developed by the School Start Committee via eight months’ worth of meetings and discussion. The recommendation, supported by Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, is to change the high school start time from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., in the 2020-21 school year.
Four students and five Norwalk teachers were among those speaking their minds at Monday’s public hearing on the proposal. Concerns were raised about students working after school, students taking the train, integration with sports schedules and students walking home in the dark. This might work in other communities, but Norwalk’s diversity hasn’t been considered, some said. Teachers weren’t consulted, others opined.
“It’s just a fact that when puberty hits, teens’ sleep cycle shifts about two to three hours later,” Sasha Carr, Ph.D., a member of the Committee, said. “… We cannot force our teens to fall asleep earlier.”
“Our start times in Norwalk last changed 20 years ago. That was the 1999-2000 school year, and that was when the state of Connecticut intervened with the district and forced the district to offer a minimum number of hours of instruction to meet the state requirement of minimum instruction,” Adamowski said. “I think we’d like to think that our district has evolved a lot since then. And that we would be ahead of the curve on this important issue.”
The proposal “struck just the right balance in terms of what was needed, what students most needed, and also what the board was expecting us to do in terms of coming in a financial responsible level,” Norwalk Public Schools Chief of School Operations Frank Costanzo said, explaining that this plan is estimated to cost $457,000 for transportation expenses.
“In theory, I think this plan sounds decent,” a female Brien McMahon senior said. “…The time proposed gives like an hour delay, so I’ve been looking at my schedule to see how that will affect me. And it’s still giving me the same amount of time of sleep.”
The BMHS student body is 49% Hispanic, 29% black and 24% white, she said. “I know several students who work multiple jobs and I know a lot of them who have to rent their own apartment due to social problems in their house,” and in her case, she’d lose $70 a week from losing one hour’s work. “If I work less time, I got less money. And one more hour means one more hour to pay the babysitter. So that means I have less money to pay the babysitter and less time to go home and take care of him.”
Most students who work are seniors and seniors can have an open end to their day, a system that is working in Greenwich, Adamowski said.
A Brien McMahon teacher said he knows at least six juniors who work.
“The typical student in Norwalk is a member of the workforce,” he said. “The cost of staying one hour later is astronomical, and also impossible to even fully quantify. Most teachers are employed after school during afternoons and evenings to make ends meet. For me personally, to add five additional hours of childcare per week and remove five employable hours is a two-pronged effect that teachers simply can’t afford.”
The Board is planning to meet with the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce and discuss work issues, Adamowski said.
A mom reported that her daughter, a NECA (Norwalk Early College Academy) sophomore said, “Mom, please don’t let them do this. You know, it’s hard enough to get the classes I want because of all the conflicts….I heard from her French teacher that they lost three AP kids this year because they couldn’t make it work with the P-tech kids. Because P-tech kids have to leave for NCC (Norwalk Community College). And they scheduled the classes in the afternoon.”
“We are aware of a number of scheduling improvements that are needed at Norwalk High School, (home to NECA),” Adamowski replied, explaining that later start times would facilitate the college courses NECA students take.
“I hear that you’ve been doing the research for years and years and years, but many of us we weren’t aware,” the mom said.
“The initial plan was to study this last year and do it this year. And the Board of Education made a decision to postpone, the committee received additional time,” Adamowski said. “And so here we are, but we’re what we are seeking is a year of planning and dissemination and information. So, you know, it’s the old question, you know, if not now, when?”
One dad spoke in favor.
“I’m really impressed that the board has embrace science, and is trying their hardest to implement it,” Sam Fitzgerald said. “I think that the evidence, as we’ve seen so far is that the overwhelming evidence statement here is that kids do better when they start school later.”
The mother of a Brien McMahon freshman and a recent graduate said, “the biggest question I have is the consistency across the neighboring communities. … And I think this is one of those times where we don’t want to be ahead of the curve from the rest of them.”
She mentioned sports and organizing between the high schools.
Carr said she sits on a regional education board and pointed out that the state legislature is studying high school start times. “There are multiple communities around us that are considering this change. … I do think that we are starting to have these conversations across the region and across the state.”
“I agree with you, it would be easier if we all move together,” she said. “But as far as Norwalk goes the timing is very good for us to do this now.”
While some, including Jared, said teens will just stay up later if school starts later, Carr said, “I hadn’t read all the science, that’s what I would think to for sure…. there’s just a huge amount of evidence because other districts have done this.”
Costanzo said 1,000 American schools have gone to later start times and only 10 have reverted to their old schedules.
“It’s pretty convincing that when you make the change … it does have more good overall, for the students,” he said. “Although we may not realize it initially, in time, we’re going to be we’re going to be grateful that we were courageous and made the decision that we made, if the decision is made next week.”
“I know that you guys said that there has been studies shown that the students are going to sleep at the same time,” a Brien McMahon sophomore said. “But for people who literally have a commitments every single day as well as tackling homework that teachers are giving them, they’re not going to get the same amount of sleep.”
The Norwalk Federation of Teachers surveyed its members “to provide our input and voice that’s been deliberately excluded,” Katie Okrentowich said. Of 193 respondents from both high schools, “14% believe that change would affect them positively, 10% felt that the effects would be neutral and 75% responded the change would affect them negatively.”
“For so many, a later start time does not equal an additional hour at home, anyone familiar with the realities of route 95 commute… knows that to be true,” said Okrentowich, NFT steward at Brien McMahon. “…The educators of Norwalk do not ask that you weigh the needs of teachers ahead of the needs of students. We simply ask that you pause to consider that teacher well-being and student success are linked.”
NFT President Mary Yordon spoke for a Cranbury Elementary School teacher who had left and said that teachers there are concerned about long days, with children on long bus rides where a 15-minute delay is “typical.”
“We really do believe that there will be kids out there in the dark coming home from school, among our younger ones,” Yordon said.
There’s only a 10-minute change planned for Cranbury, ending school at 3:50 instead of 3:40, Adamowski said. Board of Education Chairman Mike Barbis said the longest bus ride to Cranbury is 35 minutes. Carr said that the additional buses planned might shorten the Cranbury ride.
Sunset in January is at 4:49 p.m., NFT First Vice President Joe Giandurco said. “So you have 18 minutes of sunlight in order to get home in most of the parts of Silvermine, Cranbury and Wolfpit are not well lit. There’s not great sidewalks. So that’s a city issue. But you’re going to have elementary school kids getting off the bus in the dark or very close to the dark.”
“I think the committee was very concerned about reports and received and concerns had received from a parents about students waiting for buses in the dark,” but parents objected to elementary school starting before 8 a.m., Adamowski said.
There are more than 1,000 teachers and, “There’s been zero-zero-zero-zero survey done of the thousand professionals that you place in charge of educating the children of Norwalk,” Giandurco said. “You have never reached out to us. Mary has been excluded. I’ve been excluded… Some of the comments that were here tonight made by many of the board members, it appears that the decisions already been made. And unfortunately for some of the people that have come here tonight, they’re going to see the rude awakening of how government works.”