WESTBROOK — The city’s middle- and high-school students could get at least an extra 20 minutes of sleep next school year.
The School Committee will consider pushing back start times throughout the district at a meeting starting at 7 tonight in Room 114 at Westbrook High School.
The closure of Prides Corner School and the reconfiguration of elementary grades already has prompted the district to overhaul its bus routes for next fall, and administrators see that as a good opportunity to better align start times with teenagers’ sleep cycles.
“The main reason is, this is better for kids,” said Superintendent Marc Gousse.
The proposal is for Westbrook High School to start classes at 7:50 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m., and for Westbrook Middle School to start at 7:55 a.m. instead of 7:25 a.m.
As the high school’s principal, Gousse tried for a long time to reduce the number of tardy students, he said, and he hopes the later start time will help. Also, he said, the new routes will reduce the average time students spend on the bus.
He said the change won’t affect after-school activities including athletics.
Although there has been little debate that high school and middle school students would benefit from starting school later, the change would also affect elementary schools.
Some parents say the proposed 8:40 a.m. start time for elementary school would make it difficult for them to get their children to school and themselves to work on time.
“We definitely heard, loud and clear, that’s a concern,” said School Committee member Suzanne Salisbury.
Westbrook’s two elementary schools for kindergarten through second grade now start at 8:35 a.m., and its two schools for third through fifth grades start at 8:15 a.m.
Once the Prides Corner School closes at the end of this school year, Westbrook will have three schools for kindergarten through fourth grade. Fifth-graders will attend Westbrook Middle School.
To address parents’ concerns, the administration is proposing to allow them to drop off their children at 8:10 a.m. at the elementary schools. The additional staff time will cost about $5,000, which can be covered by projected savings from retirements, according to a memo from Jeremy Ray, the district’s director of operations.
“Overall, I think it’s going to be a good change,” Salisbury said.
Westbrook’s start times are now among the earliest in the area. They will be among the later ones if the proposed changes are made, according to a spreadsheet provided by the Westbrook School Department.
Windham starts the earliest — at 7:15 a.m. for middle school and 7:25 a.m. for high school. Portland starts latest, with high school students going to school at 8 a.m. and middle schoolers starting at 8:25 a.m.
Stephen Rogers, principal of Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland and a former assistant principal at Portland High, said the district decided about five years ago to push the middle school start time back by a half-hour and moved the high school start time forward, from 8:10 to 7:45 a.m.
Though the high school still started later than most districts in the area, Rogers said more students were coming in tardy and, a couple of years later, the district decided to push the time back to 8 a.m.
Rogers said he has gotten positive feedback about the current start times. “I think the teachers feel like they hit the ground running now,” he said.
There’s scientific evidence to back that up, said Martine Eon, interim manager of the Maine Sleep Institute at Maine Medical Center in Portland.
Eon said that because of chemicals in the brain that regulate the sleep cycle, teenagers don’t feel tired until 11 p.m. and, assuming they go to bed then, their bodies don’t start feeling awake until 8 a.m.
“They’re essentially spending the first couple of hours asleep in class,” she said of teenagers who start school early.
Eon pointed to a study done in the 1990s by a University of Minnesota professor who found that starting school later lowered drop-out rates and depression in students.
For Westbrook High sophomore Maddy Drew, the later start time could mean a lot more sleep next year, when she plans to drive to school. Now, she’s one of the first students to get on the bus. She gets up at 5:30 a.m. to get picked up at 6:40 a.m.
Drew said there has been a buzz around the high school about the proposed new start time, but most of it isn’t coming from students.
“I think the teachers are more excited than the kids are,” she said.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: [email protected]