GHS headmaster offers fixes to school start time problems; includes moving bell back to 8:15 a.m.
Updated 10:33 am, Wednesday, May 16, 2018
GREENWICH — Days before the Board of Education is scheduled to discuss possible fixes to problems created by the later start time at Greenwich High School, the school’s headmaster has released a series of proposed solutions.
GHS Headmaster Christopher Winters sent a letter to local media on Tuesday morning, outlining a plan he supported to end school at 2:45 p.m. instead of the current 3:15. To make up for that half hour, Winters suggested shortening class blocks throughout the day by two-and-a-half minutes and starting school at 8:15 a.m. instead of the current 8:30 start time.
He called it a “commonsense compromise” that would address the negative impacts of the change while still allowing students to benefit from a later start time.
“A small adjustment of 15 minutes earlier than our current start time and a 15-minute shorter day would make a big difference,” Winters wrote.
At its Thursday meeting, 7 p.m. at Hamilton Avenue School, the Board of Education is expected to hear an impact analysis report from Superintendent of Schools Jill Gildea, which will look at the first year of the new start time. Gildea is expected to offer options on how to mitigate problems including traffic congestion and students missing class to make after-school games and activities.
Winters said he had not shared the letter with the Board of Education prior to its release. He did not say if he had shared it with Gildea but did say it “aligned” with one of the options she was set to present on Thursday night.
“The letter represents my perspective based on working on this issue for a considerable amount of time,” Winters said.
Gildea said last week moving the start time back was not on the table.
“Our students in Greenwich have a wide variety of interests and talents,” Gildea said Tuesday. “They’ve suggested many improvements to the ‘start time’ topic including their preferred option of (a school day from) 8 to 2:45 or 8:15 to 2:45 as a way to get them out a bit earlier due to job, family, or athletic responsibilities. I believe Headmaster Winters’ letter parallels what our students have also asked us to consider.”
Gildea said coming together around the issue is “key” and on Thursday the board would look to make sure the policy “is implemented in a way that maximizes and optimizes the health and well-being of our youth.”
When asked to clarify whether she was considering changes to the start time, Gildea on Tuesday night said: “I’m working with 8:30 a.m. start time scenarios at this time. ... I’ve been working on creative solutions that allow GHS to hold true to the 8:30 a.m. start time. Local conditions do provide some challenges to ‘smooth’ implementation, but we’re continuing our efforts to improve/solve for any of the implementation ‘pain points.’”
After much study and debate, the start time at Greenwich High was moved from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. in September, which also pushed dismissal back an hour to 3:15 p.m. Parent groups strongly advocated for the later start time, saying an extra hour of sleep made for healthier students since teenage brains are still developing. Winters did not dispute that belief.
“The Greenwich Public Schools made the change to start and end times this year for one primary reason, to improve the overall health and well-being of our students.” Winters wrote. “Having observed the changes in morning routines for GHS students and staff, I am now in full agreement that our previous start time of 7:30 was too early. I accept the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that adolescents should not start school before 8:30. I do not challenge the science.”
But Winters also criticized what he called a “zero sum game” on the part of some parents who will not accept school starting “one minute before 8:30.”
Winters said he understood why parents felt that way, but, “I also understand that start times are neither wholly the cause of suffering teens nor wholly the solution. For extreme cases, of which, unfortunately, we have more and more, we need solutions far outside the box than one-hour later start times. For the vast majority of students, a 15-minute earlier start will have no adverse effect on their health and, we hope, a 30-minute earlier dismissal will benefit them.”
When asked if he had gotten a response, Winters on Tuesday said, “I am certain that parents who have strongly held that 8:30 is the absolute earliest school can start will let me know that they disagree. Others have thanked me for offering a logical compromise solution.”
Board of Education Chairman Peter Bernstein responded to the letter by saying, “This is one opinion of one member of a larger task force that represented all stakeholders for this issue. Multiple opinions are not a bad thing when problem solving. The superintendent will make her proposals based on the work of the task force and I again urge board members and the public not to prejudge until we’ve heard the proposals and have a chance to discuss them.”
In his letter, Winters also noted what he saw as a “broader political agenda” that could hold up a compromise. Winters said he was disappointed by that but understood the position because Greenwich moving to an 8:15 a.m. start time could send a signal to other school districts not to change to 8:30 start times.
Board of Education member Peter Sherr has been an outspoken advocate for remaining at the 8:30 a.m. start time. On Tuesday he said he wanted to hear from Gildea and Winters why other districts with similar demographics have been able to make an 8:30 start time work but Greenwich has not.
“I find it troubling that Chris spoke about compromise and his letter seems to have a tone that is about dividing and not unifying,” Sherr said. “I don’t think it’s helpful.”
Valerie Erde, a parent proponent of the later start time, said supporters are concerned the district is backing away after less than a year of the change.
“I think one thing that is disappointing about the letter is that Dr. Winters paints supporters as rigid and inflexible,” Erde said. “While there is a little truth to that, we feel we have been very flexible already in agreeing to wait until this school year and not 2016 like we wanted and not pushing for middle school start time as well.”
Erde said there is willingness to compromise but supporters want to see the district “do its due diligence first” and make a good faith effort to see what has been successful in other districts that have made the switch to a later school day and see if those solutions could be applied to Greenwich.
Jim Healy, a parent who has spoken at past Board of Education meetings on start time, said he felt Winters’ letter was well intentioned but there exists a misunderstanding about what the medical recommendations were. Healy said the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all agreed 9:30 or 10 a.m. would be the best time for school to start, but the AAP had acknowledged it would not be practical to start school so late.
Healy said that meant the recommended 8:30 a.m. start those groups have endorsed is already a compromise.
Parent Wheatleigh Dunham said challenging the findings of the medical professionals who advocated for 8:30 by calling for an 8:15 start time is a mistake.
“Challenging these evidence-based studies is risky and sends a harmful message to teens,” Dunham said. “(It tells them to) ignore experts and make concessions that suit your personal preferences. Would (Winters) support vaping, indoor cigarette smoking at GHS, drinking alcohol before 8 a.m. as a concession? I don’t think so. Hopefully, he can clarify his position because there are conflicting messages here.”
Winters said it is not his usual practice to express his perspective through the media when an issue is still under review, but he felt the timing was appropriate in this case.