PARIS — At 5:48 each morning, an Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School student climbs on board the SAD 17 school bus in Harrison and makes more than a one-hour ride to school.
The bell rings for first class at 7:40 a.m., almost two hours later.
The school day has just begun.
Students throughout the Oxford Hills School District are waking up in the early morning hours, many bleary-eyed and listless, to get on school buses that start rolling through the outlying neighborhoods often before the sun has risen.
Many school officials, doctors, parents, students and legislators agree it is not the optimum start for any school day.
In fact the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement two years ago that high schools and middle schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The majority of Maine schools, including the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School and Oxford Hills Middle School, start in the 7 a.m. hour.
According to a 2015 report from The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, nationally, two out of three high school students fail to get sufficient sleep.
The result of an early school day start, argue many including the Maine Chapter of Start School Later Inc., is decreased academic performance along with a host of health, safety and other issues.
It’s a problem that many school districts deal with, and a few in Maine have been able to successfully address.
For Oxford Hills School District officials, the bottom line is transportation.
“Transportation is really the only thing preventing us from making the shift,” Superintendent Rick Colpitts said of the nationwide movement to move to later school day start times.
The SAD 17 school officials have been investigating the feasibility of going to a later school day start, and while they agree with the research that such a move would improve student academic performance, the struggle to make it happen lies with transportation.
Unlike many other school districts, the Oxford Hills School District operates a two-run bus schedule.
“I think we we all agree it is a good idea but it’s a matter of can it happen here,” later school day start advocate and SAD 17 Director Dr. Donald Ware, chairman of the Curriculum Committee, told the Advertiser Democrat. “It’s really a logistics issue.”
The board first began looking at the idea this past January when the issue was raised by a board member who had read articles about the effect of early school day starts on students.
Until this school year began and several more districts in Maine began to implement a later school start day, the idea had languished largely because of the transportation.
The district would have to adopt an one-bus-run schedule.
Committee members had been told earlier in the year it would take an additional 10 buses to get the plan going.
Other issues lingered such as the impact on after-school sport programs, concern about time enough for academics, how would teachers feel about it and busing issues such as little kids and older students being bused together.
While the problems are still there, some board members asked for another look after reading articles earlier this month about several southern Maine school districts successfully implementing the later school day start this school year.
“I feel very strongly about this,” Ware told his fellow board members at the Sept. 6 board meeting. “I don’t think we should say it’s impossible.”
On Sept. 12 the Curriculum Committee met and heard from Colpitts about how schools districts in Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Yarmouth implemented the change this year and what it would take to do so in the SAD 17 school district.
The transportation issue in those school districts is not nearly the obstacle it would be for the SAD 17 district, Colpitts said.
SAD 17 is in an unusual spot in that it has two bus runs daily, he said. SAD 17 school buses transport about 2,900 students daily, covering approximately 400 miles each day, or 777,000 miles a year. It takes about two hours and 30 minutes to complete both runs.
In order to have a late school start at the middle and high school, Colpitts said a single bus run would be necessary – something that has not been popular with parents in the past because, in part, it would require students from kindergarten through grade 12 riding in the same school bus. He noted, however, that nearby RSU 10 and SAD 44 both have single bus runs that appear to work well.
Last year, the 127th Maine Legislature failed to gain consensus on a bill proposed by Rep. Matthea Daughtry, House District 49 in Brunswick, to ensure a school day not start before 8:30 a.m. and that there be at least 11 consecutive hours of uninterrupted time from the end of a class, extracurricular activity, athletic practice or any other school activity to the start of the next school day.
Daughtry said she knew first hand about early school day starts. As a high school senior in Brunswick in 2005, Daughtry said she was so groggy getting up early that in her yearbook she her goal was: “to catch up on four years of lost sleep.”
She told a legislative committee that her research showed the shift to an early start time in high school occurred during the 1990s when school districts increasingly switched to a tiered busing schedule to save money.
Her bill was not supported by the Maine Principals Association, who despite agreeing with the research, said there would be significant negative financial impact on school districts. Alternative bus runs, they argued, would require restarting the beginning and end of elementary and middle schools causing them to begin and end later and that the move could cause contract and staffing issues at smaller schools. They also cited the effect on cocurricular and extracurricular activities.
The bill was ultimately placed in the Legislature’s “Dead” files, but not all school districts let the idea die.
About half a dozen school districts began serious talks about starting high school day later. Only three were able to implement it by this school year.
On May 26, the Yarmouth school department joined the growing national movement when its board of directors approved later start times for students.
The high school and middle school now starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 2:45 p.m. The elementary school starts at 8:40 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m. The move provided a 20-minute change to the high school and middle school schedule.
“At this early date, there are no significant negative consequences at those two schools, but there may be more difficulties with after-school activities when winter arrives,” Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of schools at the Yarmouth School Department, told the Advertiser Democrat. “At the elementary level, the difficulty is that our day now begins at 8:40 (a.m.) and ends at 3:30 p.m., which pushes some bus runs to almost 4:30 (p.m.) – again, an issue that will be more noticeable during the winter months, so we’re taking a look to see if we can shorten some of those trips.
“Because we have a very long school day (six hours and 45 minutes) compared to most districts, this change pushed our dismissal time to 2:45 p.m. for those two schools,” said Dolloff.
Dolloff said it’s too early to see the ramification in some areas, and the feedback has been limited, but it is clear day care has been affected.
“The day care issue is an interesting one,” Dolloff said. “For some parents of younger kids, the later start created the need for ‘before school’ care. For others, the later start and later dismissal reduces the need for ‘after care.’ The danger is in assuming that everyone has a tidy ‘9 to 5’ schedule; we know that isn’t the case, so we cannot create a schedule that is optimal for each and every family.”
Dolloff said the district worked with its local Community Services department to open a before-care program at the elementary school, and there is a waiting list in that program.
“We also offer after-care at the elementary level, and those programs are full, too,” he said. “Either way you look at it, families with two working parents typically need day care at one end of the day or the other, and we’re fortunate to be able to offer some relief to a few families with these programs.”
Dolloff said because the change has just begun, it’s hard to assess long-term impact.
“Feedback has been minimal at this point – it’s too soon to tell how this change will impact folks throughout the entire school year,” he said.
The early school day start is not a new concept.
Cape Elizabeth set back its high school day start in the 2008-09 school year to 8 a.m.
Cape Elizabeth School Board Chairman Elizabeth Scifres said it works.