SOUTH COVENTRY >> Cheryl Hertzog thinks the Owen J. Roberts School District isn’t taking the issue of altering school start times as seriously as it should.

Despite holding several meetings studying the issue, which would allow older students to get the extra sleep they need, Hertzog said the district needs to do more to educate the public as to why it should support this potential change.

“My concern is that no one has had any education about the research,” said Hertzog, one of 30 community members tasked with studying the issue. “Parents, guardians, students, nobody is really knowledgeable enough about the (topic) because they don’t have direct education on it.”

The district disagrees, saying it’s tried to provide all relevant information to the community to help it make informed decisions.

OJR is the third district in Chester County to consider altering start times. Unionville-Chadds Ford and Phoenixille districts are also looking at the logistics of changing start times. At this time there are no recommended changes to the 2017-18 school schedule.

Three parents, a doctor and one teen addressed the board in May to raise the issue of sleep deprivation in teens caused by early school start times. They suggested changing to a start time no earlier than 8:30 a.m., based on a 2014 recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Currently, high school and middle school classes begin at 7:30 a.m. and end at 2:15 p.m. In September, the school board asked the district to form a stakeholder committee to study the topic.

Stakeholders meet

Hertzog was a member of that committee composed of approximately 30 participants, including students, parents, teachers and administrators. The committee met Oct. 19, Nov. 9 and Dec. 12 to discuss topics like relevant research, the current academic schedule and extra-curricular opportunities for K-12 students, the high school program of studies including new cyber and hybrid courses and transportation schedules and costs for the entire school district. It also helped the administration draft a community and student survey. The results of the survey will be made available on the district website after they are presented at the Feb. 27 school board meeting.

Hertzog’s complaint stemmed from how the whole committee process was handled, she said. The committee members didn’t seem well-informed on the research, the public wasn’t given more of an opportunity to learn about the topic from an expert and the committee was disbanded despite having more work to do.

During the first committee meeting, for example, Hertzog said the administration gave each stakeholder a compiled list of relevant research to review in preparation for the next meeting.

“Some of us thought that we would be discussing the research as a committee. But that never happened,” she said. “When I asked, at the third meeting, how many people in the room had read all of the articles, less than half raised their hands.”

Expert analysis

Hertzog said she was also frustrated by the way this topic was presented to the public. The community should have been given more of an opportunity to hear directly from experts in person or by gathering to watch a video presentation before the survey was sent.

She suggested watching a presentation by Dr. Judith Owens, a specialist in neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital. Owens was lead author of the 2014 recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which suggested middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later. Another expert Hertzog recommended was Katherine Dahlsgaard, a lead psychologist in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry and behavioral sciences at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Her work with Owens showed often that asking teens suffering from anxiety and depression what time they go to bed can be a breakthrough in their treatment.

The district said it has tried to make the public aware of the research available. It advertised and hosted a presentation on this topic by the Chester County Intermediate Unit student forum Oct. 10, 2016 and linked to one of Owens’ presentations on the district’s website.

“We also posted a multitude of research articles on the topic,” Superintendent Michael Christian said. “I believe our parents are well informed of their children’s needs when answering survey questions. The charge of the committee was to investigate this topic, which included surveying our stakeholders.”

More work to be done

Hertzog’s other complaint focused on the idea that the committee was disbanded before its job was finished.

“There was never any discussion about the schools across the country that have made the change to a later start time,” she said, for example, “and the benefits that those students experienced from that change.”

Christian said the committee was charged with discussing a multitude of issues and the district didn’t want to ask more time of the stakeholders than was required.

“We appreciate the time donated by parents, students and teachers,” he said.

After the committee was disbanded, the district sent the survey to each member the day before it sent it to the community Jan. 20. Students received the survey a week later. Hertzog said there wasn’t enough time to offer any feedback.

Overall, she said she believes the district is simply going through the motions regarding this topic. She’d like to see more of an effort made to give it serious consideration.

“I just don’t think the school board or the administration is taking these issues as seriously as they should,” she said.

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