The Essex Westford School District has unveiled changes to start and stop times across its 10 schools for next fall.
Students in kindergarten through third grade will start school at 7:45 a.m. and be released at 2:45 p.m.; Thomas Fleming, Founders Memorial and Westford Elementary will begin at 8 a.m. and be released at 3 p.m.; and both EWSD middle schools will start at 8:15 a.m. and be released at 3:15 p.m. Essex High School’s schedule will remain the same.
District leaders offered the final proposal at the May 1 board meeting after a months-long process that’s seen three iterations of the plan discussed at several public forums.
“I’m actually really proud of all the feedback we’ve gotten and how we’ve adjusted and continued to adjust, but stuck to our three big ideas,” superintendent Beth Cobb said.
Those included a common duration across grade levels, later start times for older students and a recurring collaboration time for staff.
The administration had hoped to move back the start time for EHS, too, citing research that recommends later start times for older students. But changes there would impact the Center for Technology, Essex and sending schools across the county, and parents said it’s important high school students are released before grades K-8 because many of them watch younger students after school.
The high school will retain its 8 a.m. start time, and the district will study changes in the years to come, Cobb said.
Alexis Dubief, a sleep researcher and Essex Jct. resident, urged administrators to find a way to delay the start time at EHS.
“We are drowning in evidence that we are killing our children, literally, to be sleep deprived chronically for four years in high school,” she said. “It is of critical importance that we make this change, and I really hope we can make this happen.”
The new schedule will also dismiss all EWSD students an hour early every Tuesday. That weekly window will give staff a chance to collaborate on a regular basis and provide over 35 hours of professional development time, taking the place of the four half-days scheduled throughout the year.
“Research says that the No. 1 way to improve student improvement is through giving time for staff, for teachers, to work together and be aligned with their curriculum,” Cobb said.
The final proposal carves professional development time out once a week instead of spreading it out across two.
Parents requested that change so they only had to figure work around the schedule changes once a week, Cobb said.
District leaders say the early release format is being used around the region. They plan to continue working with community partners to find potential childcare opportunities, but the district won’t provide daycare for that extra hour. It will have a bus come through and pick up students, Cobb said.
Board member Patrick Murray shared a concern he’s voiced multiple times throughout the process.
He hoped the district could find a way to lessen the impact on low-income families who likely can’t afford extra childcare costs due to the early dismissals.
“Those are the people that I worry about,” he said. “I fear that that goes completely against the equity portion of what we’ve all been striving toward.”
Brian Donahue, EWSD chief operating officer, recognized this but said the lack of quality and affordable childcare is a prevalent issue under the current system, too, noting all local afterschool programs are maxed out as-is.
“[Families are] trying to string this all together,” he said. “Maybe what we’re doing is shining a light on that. We’ve got to figure out as a community how we deal with this.”
District administrators first alluded to the schedule changes after debriefing the failed transportation launch for Essex Jct. due to a lack of bus drivers.
Since then, Donahue said, the district has taken a more comprehensive look at its transportation model, including whether some Essex Town routes could also cover the village.
District leaders are also exploring a hybrid system to bring some administrative functions in-house to cut down on costs.
That would allow the district to offer more competitive wages for drivers, administrators said back in March. Donahue said the district could begin recruiting new drivers this summer.
Donahue acknowledged there’s pressure on the district to get it right this time, though he said the delay did allow administrators to find more efficiencies. He said it’s possible they will need fewer than the 11 drivers estimated last year and felt confident the Essex Jct. expansion would occur this fall.
“These are big things, and so we’re taking some risks,” he said. “With risk comes some uncertainty. I think we’re trying to work with our partners, we’re trying to be reasoned and professional about it, but there will come parts of this that are outside of our control.”
He said the start and stop times could be altered slightly to mesh with the eventual transportation plan. But the point of this process was to make sure transportation didn’t dictate the learning model, he said, and he didn’t expect any dramatic changes.
Plus, Donahue said, the worst-case scenario played out this year, and “we’ve had a really good year of public education in our community.”