Next year, alarm-snoozers at Essex High School might catch a break — and a few more Z’s, according to an early draft to change start and end times for the 10 schools within the Essex Westford School District.
There, administrators are working to create a new schedule that would address inconsistencies in the current system, align with brain science and carve out time for teachers to collaborate.
Last week’s draft presented to the school board served as a “straw proposal” aimed at starting the conversation and will undergo more tweaks and public outreach before a decision is made, according to chief operating officer Brian Donahue.
“It’s just make-believe right now,” he said.
But it also outlined three ideas that will continue to drive the conversation as district leaders balance the tenets of an optimal learning schedule against the concerns of parents who must navigate through any eventual changes.
“Each one of them really has a chance to make your life better, and each one of those has a definite chance to make it more complicated,” Donahue told the parents who attended the March 8 meeting. “That will be the process, because as we react, we react to one person’s, ‘This would be awesome,’ which is another person’s: ‘Please do not do that to me.’”
At some point, however, the decision will come down to priorities, he said, since the concerns of all can’t be mutually solved.
Currently, start and stop times widely vary across the district and even across some grade levels, resulting in significant variations in how long students attend school. For example, K-2 students at Essex Elementary start a half hour later than their peers at Summit Street.
Since the latter is also dismissed five minutes later, the two groups of students see a 35-minute difference in the time spent at school each day.
Spread across an entire year, that equals about 12 less days of instructional time, Donahue said.
Those same Essex Elementary students start school almost an hour later than Essex Middle Schoolers, despite decades-old research showing older students need more sleep than younger ones.
“As I raised my four kids, I never had a problem getting my 7-year-old out of bed,” Donahue said. “By the time they’re 17, I usually need, like, explosives to get them out.”
The initial proposal shared last week looked to answer those questions: What if students attend school for the same duration, and what if the schedule reflected what we know about the needs of adolescents?
That led to a draft showing Essex’s three youngest schools starting at 7:45 a.m., its two mid-level elementary schools — Founders and Thomas Fleming — at 8 a.m., and its two middle schools at 8:15 a.m.
Westford, meanwhile, would still start at 8 a.m. and high-schoolers would begin each day at 8:30 a.m.
Then, through a mix of early dismissals for K-8 and late arrivals for high schoolers, the district could create weekly time for staff to collaborate that would take the place of the current half-day professional development periods.
District leaders like Donahue understand a long list of challenges stand in the way of such a system. And a few parents who spoke at last week’s meeting highlighted two of the biggest: the increased need for childcare and the impact on getting kids to and from school.
“The mom guilt is already starting,” parent Lisa Anger said. “My head’s already trying to figure out how this is going to work. It’s stressful.”
Board member Patrick Murray worried how the changes would impact some of the more vulnerable families in the district — those who can’t afford an extra $20 an hour in childcare every week.
“How deeply are we looking at the equity involved in a decision like that?” he asked. “Because it seems like there is a greater financial burden on those who can least afford it, and equity is the biggest conversation we’ve had the entire time we’re a board.”
Murray, who has a daughter in second grade, also empathized with parent concerns at the meeting.
“They’re very real, and they will affect me,” he said of the changes. “The same worries you have are the same worries that we have up here, and we’re going to think this process through.”
Superintendent Beth Cobb said the district has met with the YMCA and Essex Jct. Parks and Recreation to find ways to support families on early dismissal days. Some districts already have similar systems in place, she said, pointing to Williston, where schools offer free childcare for that hour.
“I know we’re dedicated to working that out,” she said, adding the district is willing to host a community conversation to hash out some more questions with parents.
The draft schedule changes arrive to the board four months after the admin team first alluded to the concept in their response to the failed transportation expansion. District leaders continue to work toward a new hybrid busing model.
But Donahue said their focus remains on creating a system that puts learning first and builds transportation around it.
“Otherwise,” he said, “we’re asking our educators to work on the optimal software determination of our transportation network. And it really just shouldn’t be about that.”