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Backlash by Kids, Parents Among Obstacles to Later Start to Classes

As Senate panel OKs study, one school chief describes how short-lived change in his district impacted after-school jobs and sports teams

alarm clock

Hopes were high when Pemberton Township two years ago decided to start high-school classes at 8:15 a.m., an hour later than before. It would result in fresher students, more open schedules…What could go wrong?

But a year later, the schedule went back to 7:15 a.m., the later start time having fallen victim to logistics and emotional reactions in response to the impact the change had on everything from family schedules to the football team.

“What I thought would be very well received was in fact very poorly received,” said Michael Gorman, the Burlington County district’s school chief.

It’s a hot topic of late and one that’s even the focus of legislative deliberations: Should New Jersey schools start a little later in the day to give students a chance to wake up and smell the coffee before diving into their studies?

A bill calling on the state Department of Education to study such a change was passed yesterday by the state Senate’s education committee.

Sponsored by state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), the bill is aimed to address concerns about the growing problem of sleep deprivation among teenagers and what it’s doing to their studies. A variety of recent reports, including one from the American Academy of Pediatrics, have touted the benefit of later starts in the school day.

But in testimony before the committee yesterday, several advocates of the change, as well as others representing school groups, said it’s one thing to ordain a later start and another to actually put it in place.

A prime exhibit was the experience at Pemberton’s 1,100-student high school.

At the time of the change in the school-opening time, Gorman said, he was excited at the prospect, as more and more research was affirming the positive effect getting more sleep could have on the ability to learn.

“If I had my way, it would be10 a.m.,” Gorman said, only half in jest.

And the early results of the schedule change in Pemberton were indeed positive. The honor roll saw a boost in membership, he said, and discipline incidents saw a slight decline. The rate of tardiness didn’t change much, but Gorman said that was to be expected. Overall, the early results appeared to be positive.

But then the grown-ups began to complain. The later starts had an impact on after-school sports practices, specifically when the football team was forced to practice under the lights. Similarly, students working after-school jobs were pressed to make it to their jobs on time.

And then there was the matter of child care.

“The one that broke the camel’s back was parents who said that when younger kids were coming home, they really needed their older siblings to be there to take care of them,” he said.

With dozens of families speaking out at board meetings, the board ultimately reversed the change.

“From a community standpoint, it just didn’t sell very well,” Gorman said.

Yesterday, the superintendent said he wasn’t against the intent of Codey’s bill, and that he appreciates the attention being paid to the issue. But he predicted it will likely be a long road to a statewide mandate.

“While I’m an advocate for the later start -- and an example of its failure -- we really need to have a body of research around it, and also answers to how you get around the logistics of this,” Gorman said. “This is really what killed it here.”

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