High school and middle school students in Portland could get to sleep in a little longer next year if the school board approves a proposal for later start times for older students.

The proposal, which is scheduled for a vote on May 18, calls for middle and high schools to start at 8:20 a.m. and end at 2:50 p.m., slightly later than in pre-pandemic times. The change would not apply to the Portland Arts and Technology High School, or PATHS, which would continue with its 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. schedule. 

East End, Longfellow, Ocean Avenue and Talbot elementary schools would start at 7:40 a.m. and end at 2:10 p.m. Lyseth, Presumpscot, Reiche and Rowe elementary schools would start at 9 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m. Island schools would keep their pre-pandemic schedules of 8:20 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. for Cliff and 8:20 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. for Peaks. 

The proposal builds on changes made during the pandemic and reflects research showing later start times can benefit adolescents’ sleep schedules.

Parents and students gave it mixed reviews Tuesday. Many were not yet aware of the proposal, which the district explained in a newsletter Friday, and still others who were new to their schools this year said they weren’t aware of pre-pandemic start times and how they would be affected.

Zofia Dyro, a sixth-grader at King Middle School, said she supports starting at 8:20 rather than 7:55 a.m.

“I think it will be good,” said Dyro, 12. Her mother, however, disagreed. “Parents should not say, ‘Oh they need to sleep more,’ ” said Nora Dyro. “No, that’s wrong. They’re already 12 years old. They need to start to be responsible.”

“I think my oldest would love that but my youngest, he would not like that,” said Annie Madio, whose two sons attend Ocean Avenue – the oldest will be at Lyman Moore Middle School next year. The fact that Ocean Avenue already switched to an earlier start this year because of the pandemic could mitigate the impact, Madio said. She also said later start times would be better for older students. “I agree having the kids in high school and middle school start later is absolutely better for them,” she said.

The proposed changes come as Portland schools are considering next year’s calendar and a return to more traditional schedules following pandemic-shortened school days. At a school board meeting last week, Superintendent Xavier Botana told the board that the district has been considering the changes for some time in keeping with research that shows early start times are at odds with the natural biological rhythms of adolescents.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends high schools and middle schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to optimize sleep and prevent the disruption of circadian rhythms. The academy doesn’t have a recommended start time for elementary school students, but says children ages 6 to 12 should get nine to 12 hours of sleep per night.

The proposal only changes high school start and end times by 20 minutes compared to pre-pandemic schedules, and adjusts middle school start and end times by 25 or 35 minutes. During the pandemic, high school students have been attending classes from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30, with afternoon access to “learning center” support. Middle school students have attended from 9:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Botana said the changes proposed for next year, though small, could pave the way for further adjustments later.

“We’re looking at this as a transition, a step in a direction but not necessarily something we would stay at and we definitely want to explore the possibility of going further with the high schools and middle schools in the future,” he said.

Some high school students said Tuesday that they support a later start time, but since they already start later because of the pandemic, the proposed change would actually feel earlier. CJ Stafford, a freshman at Portland High, said he currently wakes up at 6:45 a.m. to start classes at 9:30. He usually gets to school early on in-person days and uses the time to catch up on work.

“I’ll probably have to wake up a bit earlier,” Stafford said. “It’s hard for me in the mornings. I’m not necessarily a morning person. If I wake up in the mornings, I’m tired. I don’t want to be up at that hour but I have to be to get myself ready for the day.”

Sebastian Palmerin, a senior at Portland High, won’t be around for the proposed change next year but said he supports giving students a little extra time in the morning.

“After online school, it’s easier getting used to waking up later,” said Palmerin, 18. “Next year it will probably be better giving them an extra 20.”

The biggest changes would be felt by some elementary school students and families who could see a 40-minute swing toward earlier start and end times. Ocean Avenue Elementary, which previously operated from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., would start and finish 50 minutes earlier.

Belise Ndikumagenge, whose son is in first grade at Ocean Avenue, lamented the change when told Tuesday the proposal would have students end school at 2:10 p.m. next year.

“Before when they finished later, around 3, it was better because parents, you can work during that time when they’re at school and have your eight hours,” said Ndikumagenge, 36. “If they finish at 2, 12:30 or 1 p.m., you don’t have enough hours to work.”

Ndikumagenge, who works in home care, said it was already hard this year to adjust to the recent change from two to four days of in-person learning per week. “It’s getting really hard,” she said. “We already scheduled everything around having the kids home (three) days per week and they change. It’s really hard.”

Longfellow, East End and Talbot school schedules would be 40 minutes earlier than pre-pandemic schedules, although those schools, along with Ocean Avenue, have been starting at 7:45 a.m. during the pandemic.

The 9 a.m. to 3:30 hours at Rowe, Reiche and Lyseth schools, meanwhile, are the same as before the pandemic. Presumpscot previously had an 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule and would now be running a half hour later. Staggered start times are necessary to allow school buses to provide transportation to all the schools.

At a school board operations committee meeting last week, some committee members worried that there hasn’t been sufficient community input, and suggested the board also consider having all schools return to their pre-pandemic schedules.

“I do want us to move to a later start for the high schools but with people’s work schedules and childcare and so on, to do it now is, even though it seems September is far away, it’s really not for people who are making plans,” said Sarah Thompson, operations committee chair. “My support would be for a pre-pandemic schedule with the caveat that we are going to move, whether it be to the proposed one or something more drastic, the following year, but that we have that engagement so people feel included.”

The last significant changes to bell times were made in 2015, when the board made changes to accommodate adding 20 minutes of learning time to the school day. Adjustments were also made in 2016 to enable buses to get students to and from school in a more timely manner.

At last week’s school board meeting, Thompson said the district faced challenges in 2015 including concerns about childcare, transportation and students’ after-school sports and work schedules. The board at that time had considered a start time as late as 8:55 for high school students, but ultimately voted against it. They also heard pushback from elementary school parents who felt 7:45 a.m. was too early a start time.

“I want us to do it right this time because last time, needless to say, was a disaster,” Thompson said. “The board really wanted to make the change and it just fell apart. So I want us to do our diligent work and bring the community along with us so we can make the change and make it last.”


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