Superintendent of Schools Stephen C. Cochrane, concerned about stressed out students not getting enough sleep, released a proposal to start classes at Princeton High School nearly an hour later for the upcoming academic year.
Classes there and at John Witherspoon Middle School would start at 8:45 a.m. and end at 3:45 p.m., based on a plan he outlined in a presentation to the Board of Education on Tuesday. In addition, elementary schools would start at 8:10 a.m. and end at 2:45 p.m.
At the moment, the high school day is from 7:50 a.m. to 2:51 p.m., the elementary schools from 8:25 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the middle school from 8:30 a.m. to 2:55 p.m.
The proposal was an outgrowth of input from district staff and others. Last week, Cochrane sent the community a letter laying out what the district had in mind, so Tuesday was not the first time the public had heard of this. In his remarks Tuesday, he said the schedule changes are not “set in stone.”
“There’s an opportunity for us to get feedback from parents, from teachers, from students (and) make adjustments based upon a number of considerations,” he said.
Some of those considerations include transportation. He said the district has a “tiered-busing” system such that the same buses that transport elementary and middle school students are the ones that take high school students to school. He said it takes about 35 minutes “between routes for the buses to turn around and get the other kids.”
“So if we didn’t tier our buses,” he said, “we would double our transportation budget and we would probably not be able to get enough drivers because there’s a shortage of drivers in New Jersey as it is.”
Others factors include the impact on Cranbury, whose students come by bus across Route 1. Cochrane said the two districts have been in touch on the issue.
“They understand the reason and they want to do the right thing for their kids,” he said about Cranbury, in an interview after the meeting.
He said there are “transportation costs” that come into play for that district.
“So that’s what they have to work through,” he said, “but there’s a willingness to work through that.”
“We are working closely with Princeton to stay informed of any updates regarding the process,” said Susan L. Genco, Cranbury chief school administrator and principal, by email Wednesday. “As decisions are made at the high school, details will be shared with the Cranbury community.”
In terms of a deadline for making a decision, the district has to put out bidding information for contracted buses by the end of January. Cochrane’s office said this week that the board of education would need to approve the plan.
In making his case, Cochrane referenced the findings of a survey that 90 percent of high school students had taken in December in which large numbers of them were “often or always stressed by school work.” They also reported having three to three and a half hours of homework a night and getting six to six and a half hours of sleep per night, well below the federal government recommended range of eight to 10 hours of nightly sleep.
“That chronic sleep loss takes a toll,” he said. “And we know that chronic loss of sleep negatively affects mental health, physical health and academic achievement.”
Cochrane said the Association of Pediatrics has called on middle and high schools to start their days at 8:30 a.m. or later so that children can get eight and and half hours to 9 and a half hours of sleep.
A later start time is part of the overall strategy the district is looking to implement.
Cochrane also touched on the implications for sports should Princeton become the only school in the county to end at 3:45 p.m.
“We have to work out some kind of cooperative measures with the leagues and with the other teams we play in terms of scheduling,” he said.
That issue comes into even greater focus in the fall, when it gets darker earlier, in a district whose playing fields don’t have lights.
While the Princeton Regional Education Association, the teachers union, does not have to approve the change, the district does need union support to move up the start of the school year to late August, as Cochrane is looking to do.