school start times
IMAGE COURTESY PIXABAY The state has launched a pilot program in which school districts will explore later start times.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

A Montclair parent has started a petition urging the school district to consider later start times for Montclair’s schools.

The petition comes just as New Jersey is launching a pilot program for schools to explore later start times of 8:30 a.m. or later.

A New Jersey State Study Group concluded that delaying the start of school times for middle schools and high schools, even for a short period of time, offers significant positive benefits and outcomes, including those attendant to students’ health, safety, well-being, and academic performance, but also is fraught with obstacles and challenges such as with transportation, according to the report released in April 2017.

Petition writer Emanuel Goldman, the parent of an incoming student at Glenfield Middle School, began last February asking the school district to consider later start times at the three middle schools and at Montclair High School.

Currently, Montclair High School, Glenfield Middle School and Buzz Aldrin Middle School start at 7:50 a.m. Renaissance Middle School starts at 8:05 a.m.

Goldman launched the petition on Change.org on Aug. 23. The petition had 29 signatures as of Tuesday, Aug. 27.

Under the new law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in August, school districts apply to become part of the four-year pilot program. The Commissioner of Education will then choose five school districts to experiment with having later start times in their middle and high schools.

Districts that wish to apply must submit information, including their population of high school students, rates of absenteeism and tardiness, current start times, and an assessment of teacher satisfaction and student engagement.

Department of Education spokesperson Mike Yaple said the state was still putting together the application process for districts, and that some of the details, including a deadline for districts to apply, were not yet available.

“The Board of Education continues to drag its feet on this issue and has failed to take action,” Goldman said.

Goldman said he reached out to BOE Vice President Anne Mernin in July, who was supportive of the idea, but also cautious. She said it would take at least a year to implement any start time changes if Montclair decided to pursue them.

In Montclair, the schools’ bus schedule, child care needs and extracurricular activities have been cited as reasons for the early start times at the middle and high schools. The school buses bring students to the high school and middle school first before picking up and dropping off the elementary school students.

Montclair’s seven elementary schools start after 8 a.m. Hillside has the latest start time at 9:20 a.m., followed by Nishuane at 9:10 a.m. Northeast has the earliest start time of the elementary schools: 8:10 a.m.

Earlier this month, former Superintendent Kendra Johnson said the schools were looking at the terms of the pilot program.

“We are closely reviewing the stipulations for the pilot. However, it is important to note that we, [Montclair Public Schools], must have a year to implement if we elected to move in this direction.  As you likely know, we do not own our buses and would need to work with our bus vendors a year out to plan appropriately,” Johnson said. “I am confident this topic will continue to be reviewed by district and the board.”

In the area, Bloomfield Middle School and H.B. Whitehorne Middle School in Verona have later starts at 8:35 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. respectively, while the Bloomfield High School start at 7:45 a.m. Glen Ridge High School, which includes grades seven and eight, has a warning bell at 7:55 a.m. West Orange High School starts at 7:30 a.m., and the three middle schools start at 8:10 a.m. Verona High School’s first period begins at 8 a.m. starts at 8:30 a.m.

A 2017 survey of middle school and high school administrators concluded that only 9 percent sought later start times.

It concluded: “School start times should not be mandated by the New Jersey Legislature or the NJDOE. Any decision to pursue later school start times must be determined solely by local school districts and must be driven by locally determined situations, conditions, and needs.

Goldman said he had not heard about the state’s pilot program, but said he was very encouraged by the idea.”

But Goldman citing The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine recommendations that teenagers get between eight and 10 hours of sleep each night is still hopeful that Montclair will work out later start times.

“I am hopeful this petition will shame the board to honor its obligation to protect our children, and change school start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Changing schools to later start times should be fast-tracked, no more excuses,” he said.

The bill proposing the program was introduced by Sen. Richard Codey in March and was signed five months later.

The five participating districts in the pilot program represent rural, urban and suburban districts, in south, central and northern New Jersey, according to the law.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article had the incorrect start time for Renaissance Middle School. The start time is 8:05.