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School Start Debate: Nyack Teenagers Need More Sleep

by Jeffrey Rose, Jennifer Terranova, Lezlee Peterzell-Bellanich
Three years ago, a group of parents met with Nyack Schools Superintendent James Montesano in an effort to change the early start time for our high school. Dr. Montesano told these parents that he agreed the start time was too early. In fact, he felt so strongly about it, that moving up the high school start time was the first thing he did in his last position as superintendent, in Paramus, NJ. He explained that Nyack is more complicated because of our busing and they that would have to form a committee and get approval from the Nyack Board of Education in order for change to happen,.
The “Bell Start Time” committee was comprised of a health professional, concerned parents, Nyack school district faculty including three principals (one from each age level), the deputy superintendent, high school sports director and a representative from the transportation department.
The committee was given the task to come up with an alternative solution to our current bell time schedule that would not cost the district any more money due to our tax cap and ensure that elementary schools dismiss later than middle and high schools for those families who need older siblings to care for younger ones. Many districts across the country are changing high school start times because of the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is healthier for students and improves grades and attendance.
Changing times can be a challenge, like many school districts in our nation, Nyack has a three-tiered bus system with a wide range of pickups, but districts are figuring out way to make this change and some are saving their districts money by doing so while protecting the health and well being of their teenagers.
The committee met once a month over a period of 8 months between 2015-16 and presented a proposal in October 2016 based on the parameters required. In the proposal, the only scenario which allowed High School to start later (from 7:30a to 8:19a) was if middle school started 20 minutes earlier, which is the same start time for Nanuet Middle School (changing from 8:05a to 7:45a). While common sense would have elementary school start first while middle and high school start later, the committee could not consider this as an option due to the parameters give by Dr. Montesano. Therefore, the committee proposed that elementary school would have to move 15 minutes later (from 8:50a to 9:05a) to accommodate the most sleep deprived group, high school students.
After the proposal, the Board of Education decided to conduct a survey to the Nyack school community. The survey included parents and high school students. When asked, 72% of parents and 56% of students either preferred the high school start time be pushed up to 8:19a or said that it would not affect their family and they could adjust to the change (Question 7 of School Start Time Survey). In addition, 57% of parents were comfortable with the changes to the start times for all three levels of schools compared to 34% who were opposed to changing the times (Question 19 of School Start Time Survey).
The Board of Education had concerns with the proposed time changes because they do not like the idea of moving the middle school start time 20 minutes earlier than their current 8:05a start, so they have hired an outside consultant to try and come up with another solution that could better serve our community. Let us be clear. If there is another solution which pushes start times for both middle and high school later, this would be ideal because the increased sleep will benefit both middle school and high school students. While the Bell Time Committee’s proposed starting times are not ideal for everyone, our current high school start time is keeping high school students in a constant state of sleep deprivation. If the only way to move up the high school start time is to make the middle school start a little earlier, than it may be a necessary sacrifice that we have to make because we are currently sacrificing the well being of high school students for our middle school students. We have to keep in mind, that high school is four years instead of three, grades are submitted to prospective colleges (unlike middle school), attendance is vital to success, many students begin driving and need to be alert. Furthermore, in the first year or two of middle school, (ages 11-13yrs), students find it easier to fall asleep earlier. The logistics of implementing this change without adding to the current transportation cost is indeed challenging, but the cost of not doing anything is greater.

The next Nyack Board of Education meeting is Tues Feb 5 at 7:30p at the Nyack Administration Building.

In April 2013, the Nyack Board of Education proposed to ban all students from leaving campus during the day because of safety concerns, even though students protested and 400 students signed a petition against this move. They made a minor compromise, letting only seniors leave campus, but in the end they did what they felt was in the best interest of our high school students for their safety and well being. James Marshall urged all the Board of Education Members to vote in favor of closing the campus. “I urge the entire board to take a stance in support of the administration at the risk of being unpopular,” said Marshall.  We are hoping that the Nyack Board of Education will take action that is in the best interest to both the physical and mental health of Nyack teenagers by figuring out a scenario so that our Nyack High can move up their start time, even if not everyone in the community is behind this.

Dr., Max Van Gilder, retired pediatrician

We know a lot about sleep now. We know that teens need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep at night. We know that puberty causes the adolescent sleep onset time to reset from 9-9:30p to 11-11:30p in all cultures and nationalities world-wide regardless of access to electronics. You should also know that high schools in the USA started at 9a until the 1970s.
Students who must be up at 6a to prepare to leave for school get 6 1/2 hours of sleep when all sleep authorities agree they need at least 8 1/2 hours of sleep. Missing those last two hours of sleep, much of it in the restorative REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep deprives the brain of many housekeeping functions necessary for brain health. Studies show clear adverse physical and mental health outcomes associated with chronic sleep deprivation.
The Feb 2 article, Let’s Put The Nyack School Start Time Debate To Bed, contains statements not supported by the many scientific articles studying teen sleep. The most recent study in Seattle showed that moving the high school start time from 7:50a to 8:45a (55 minutes later) resulted in an additional 34 minutes of sleep, a 4.5% increase of grades and significant improvement in attendance in students in academically/economically challenged schools. Multiple studies show later start times affect students who qualify for free lunch disproportionately for the better.
Where school start times have been moved to a later time (after 8:30) graduation rates and percent attending college have increased. Drug use, risky behaviors, suicidal behavior and stimulant use have all dropped. Athletic performance increases and athletic injuries drop because the students brains work better.
Advocating that students should get 6 1/2 hours of sleep as the writer is doing in the face of a massive amount of scientific data stating they need 8 or more hours of sleep is not correct.
Changing school start times is challenging. It involves bus schedules, athletic schedules, bell schedules, parent schedules and teacher schedules. Attention must be paid to before and after school child care for elementary students. It’s complex and requires a lot of problem solving. Change is hard and many of us don’t like changes in our daily lives. However, depriving our teens of necessary sleep is a mistake.
There are solutions out there, like changing to two-tier busing, adjusting the bell schedules, etc. that help solve problems. They need to be considered. You stated, “Let’s put this sleep time debate to bed until there is real factual and economic analysis to suggest its benefits.” Well, we have the data. It shows real benefits of delaying school start times. Time to move forward in a way that works for everyone. Many solutions may save the school district money.
I think that the issue to push is the short-sleep situation for teens. One needs to be clear that 6 1/2 hours of sleep is not healthy and making kids go to bed earlier doesn’t mean they go to sleep any earlier.
I am concerned from this article that the school board needs to do better. Looking at 2-tier busing and engaging a transportation consultant familiar with how one can redo schedules with financial constraints is a good start. —Dr. Max Van Gilder, retired pediatrician

The study cited in the article, Let’s Put The Nyack School Start Time Debate To Bed, titled High School Start Times and the Impact on High School Students: What We Know, and What We Hope to Learn (Morgenthaler, et al. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, Vol. 12, No. 12, 2016) findings have been called into question by the scientific and medical community because it does not include peer reviewed literature published in major educational journals and secondly, does not state what system was used to judge the quality of evidence and used criteria designed primarily for medical research. Despite the fact that that the best available evidence shows that moving up the high school start time could have positive and sustained benefits for adolescent health, well being and public safety. “ This medical article goes on to say that just the impact on driving accidents alone, given that car accidents are the number one cause of mortality in American adolescents, should be more than enough to justify and support a policy change that could potentially save lives. (Obens, J,Troxel W, Wahhstrom K. Commentary on Healthy Start Times, J Clin Sleep Med. 2017;12(5)761)
The research coming from the city of Seattle, which just last year moved up their start times for middle and high schools city-wide, is overwhelming positive. An article published in MedPage (https://www.medpagetoday.com/pediatrics/generalpediatrics/76996) about the research done on high school students in Seattle who have had their start time moved up, has documented increased sleep and 4.5% increase in grades in their high school students. The article also goes on to say that schools in low income areas had less tardiness and fewer absences after the start time was moved up and how this could help close the learning gap between low and high socio-economic groups. Assemblyman Jay Obernolte supported the bill that passed in California proposing to move up middle and high school start times state-wide. He was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying that “moving up high school start times is the single most cost-effective thing we can do to improve high school graduation rates.”
An excellent summary of all the medical research done on the negative effects of sleep deprivation on teenagers and why we should move up high school start times is an op-ed article from the New York Times from September 2018.
More information and clinical studies can be found on the Start School Later Website . You can also join the local Rockland Start School Later Facebook page
In conclusion, this important issue should not be “put to bed” but rather solved. It is too important to ignore or postpone. What does this say about us as a community when we are still debating this for so many years?
It is time for to come together to figure out how to find a viable solution that will protect our teenagers. An online petition to start Nyack High School later has once again propelled this local movement. If you would like to sign go to this link: https://www.change.org/p/later-nyack-high-school-start-time. The next Nyack Board of Education meeting is Tues Feb 5 at 7:30p at the Nyack Administration Building.

Jeffrey Rose is a Rockland based Clinical Hypnotist, Addiction Recovery Coach, and parent of two elementary school children
Jennifer Terranova is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and a parent of an elementary, middle, and high school children
Lezlee Peterzell-Bellanich is a singer/songwriter, owner of a private yacht chartering company and a parent of an elementary and middle school children

See also: Let’s Put The Nyack School Start Time Debate To Bed, 2/2/2019



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