NARRAGANSETT – Citing both national and statewide studies, along with a survey sent out to parents within the district, the Narragansett School Committee Wednesday night unanimously approved a later start time for Narragansett High School (NHS). The change will take effect at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.
The day at NHS will begin at 8 a.m., as opposed to the current 7:30 a.m., and end at 2:30 p.m., instead of 2 p.m. The Narragansett Pier School (NPS), which traditionally begins at 8:05 a.m., will also move to an 8 a.m. start to align with the high school. No change was made at Narragansett Elementary School.
“A wide variety of professional organizations — the Centers for Disease Control, the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Psychological Association — all really endorse kind of going a little bit later for start time,” Narragansett Superintendent Peter Cummings said. “I will say, it is without a doubt, a change.”
“No change is without its growing pains,” he continued. “I do anticipate that there will be some disruptions. Overall, I would also say that from a health standpoint, we know it’s the right thing to do for our children, especially for our adolescents. And from an operational standpoint, in terms of the functioning of our district, I would say that I am in favor in terms of allocating and using resources more efficiently and quite honestly, to the betterment of our students and providing more opportunities to them with shared facilities and shared staff.”
For years, the school committee has considered the possibility of a later start time at NHS, engaging with the district’s health and wellness committee on the idea as other districts across the state, such as Barrington and East Greenwich, have enacted the change. A recent polling of families within the Narragansett school district found that 83 percent of those surveyed agreed with a later start time and only 17 percent were opposed, according to the school department.
“My decision is easier because we have 83 percent of families that want this,” said Narragansett School Committee Chair Tammy McNeiece. “That’s very strong. If we were at 49 and 51 percent, that would be a lot more stressful.”
In 2016, the AMA, citing sleep deprivation and its negative impact on health and well-being of adolescents, recommended middle and high schools start no sooner than 8:30 a.m.
“Sleep deprivation is a growing public health issue affecting our nation’s adolescents, putting them at risk for mental, physical and emotional distress and disorders,” AMA Board Member William E. Kobler, M.D. said at the time. “Scientific evidence strongly suggests that allowing adolescents more time for sleep at the appropriate hours results in improvements in health, academic performance, behavior, and general well-being. We believe delaying school start times will help ensure middle and high school students get enough sleep, and that it will improve the overall mental and physical health of our nation’s young people.”
Cummings elaborated that by aligning the start times of NPS and NHS, resources could be shared and new educational opportunities could arise for younger students, including the possibility of eighth graders gaining access to high school classes such as NHS’ agriscience program, mathematics and world languages.
“We’re still getting out at 2:30 p.m.,” said McNeiece. “If the high school was changing to a 3 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. end time, I would be more concerned about kids that have part-time jobs or sports teams that have away games. But it’s really a half hour shift. And look at the benefits, with the campuses being right next door to each other, and us being a small district with staff being able to be shared at both buildings, [there are] opportunities for some eighth graders to perhaps access classes at the high school.”
The approval comes after a lengthy presentation to the school committee on later start times by the district’s health and wellness committee. According to Cummings, starting later at NHS and aligning its daily opening with NPS, along with busing the students of both schools together, could result in long-term cost savings, general improvement in health and fewer tardy and absent students.
“The research would tell you and you see this nationally, and I do think this would be true for us, you would have fewer tardy and absent students,” he said. “Outside of COVID times, you will recall, chronic absenteeism is a concern, it’s a long-term concern for us and we do have students that are chronically absent within Narragansett and we do want to get them to school.”
Still, the shift isn’t without its challenges, the superintendent said. NHS has started school at 7:30 a.m. and dismissed at 2 p.m. for years and families have come to establish routines and schedule around that timeframe. Field space and sport scheduling will also need to be worked out, he added, and more buses will be needed.
“You’re going to have both the Pier School and the high school looking to use our fields at the same time,” said Cummings. “Right now, we do have that half hour gap that makes a big difference.”
In the same survey distributed to families within the district, the number one concern from parents about the change in start time was younger students from NPS riding the bus with high schoolers.
“One of the things that was a very clear concern in the comments that we got was around buses and the view that having middle school and high school children together on the bus would lead the middle school students to be at risk,” he said.
However, citing data around each school’s rate of problematic incidents along bus routes, Cummings noted that middle school students tend to misbehave far more than high school students when on the bus. He added that many juniors and seniors at NHS prefer to drive themselves to school or ride in with friends and classmates. Finally, Cummings said he had consulted with the superintendent of Exeter-West Greenwich School District, which has bussed middle school and high school students together for a number of years, and said no problems had arisen because of the age difference.
The Narragansett School System survey found that 72 percent were in favor of students from the two schools sharing bus rides, 23 percent were opposed and five percent were undecided.
“The research is there,” said school committee member Alexander Menzies, who also supported a 2018 finding of a special legislative commission to study all aspects of changing the start time of the state’s public high schools. “It’s clear, especially after the very difficult year that everyone has had dealing with COVID, and I think it’s especially important now more than ever to address the mental health and wellness of our students. I think it’s clear from the data we’ve seen that it’s beneficial. And we’re talking 30 minutes. Just 30 minutes is a significant increase in productivity of the students, a healthier mind and body.”
Menzies then asked Cummings about the concerns of delayed after school activities, most notably sports, because of the later start time.
“One of the great gifts that we have is a lighted field,” said Cummings. “Should we need to double up on games, some of them will be under the lights. It is a scheduling trick, it is not easy.”
“I think, rather than games, practices are the challenge for us and particularly practices for our spring sports,” he continued. “That is going to be a logistical challenge, however, with patience and planning, you can do a lot. We have good communication within the district and it requires the level of organization that we are capable of doing to pull it off.”
Before the vote, the school committee said it would study the effects of the change after a year and revisit the decision if negative outcomes arose.