DARIEN – Parents are pushing for a later start time at Darien High School to improve student well-being, but officials recently warned that a change could have long-lasting impacts on the district and delayed the discussion.
Darien parents took to the podium at the Sept. 26 and Oct. 10 school board meetings, pleading to move the high school start time from 7:40 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.
Giving older students additional time to sleep, they argued, would improve student mental health – an issue Darien officials and residents have continued to discuss after two local high schoolers died by suicide last spring.
“What if there was a policy we could implement that would measurably reduce the number of kids who feel sad, depressed or even contemplate suicide in the first place?” asked parent Tegwyn Collins at the Sept. 26 meeting. “As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
In her testimony to the board, Collins cited a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which found high school and middle school students should get at least 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep to improve their physical, mental and academic performances, as well as their quality of life.
Parents also pointed to nearby school districts, including New Canaan, Wilton, Westport and Greenwich, that have pushed their start times back.
But at the Sept. 26 meeting, school board Chair David Dineen warned of a lengthy timeline and potential impacts on the entire school district if the board pursues the change.
Dineen said the idea has been previously considered by the school board, and while he supports improving students’ mental health, the board found that changing the start time is a “big project.”
To accommodate a new start time at Darien High, Dineen said, the district would either need to delay start times at the elementary and middle schools or contract additional buses.
“We would need nine additional buses to the tune of $1 million a year just to accommodate that change in the high school changing time,” he said.
Dineen noted that adding nine buses to the district would be especially difficult given the ongoing shortage of bus drivers throughout the state.
In addition to busing, Dineen said the move could also impact after-school activities and teacher contracts, as the district would have to adjust agreed-upon staff schedules.
Last month, Dineen estimated it would take more than a year for the board to research and vote on the issue. At the Monday school board meeting, resident Brian Edgar asked the members to start working on the recommendation before the year’s end.
“Please make this a priority. Add it to your agenda, so we can begin the work to make this change a reality,” Edgar said.
After New Canaan pushed start times back at all its schools last year, the district reported student well-being and academic experience had improved, according to a survey of 2,454 elementary, middle and high school students and parents.
Edgar said over 300 Darien parents support the change, according to responses to a Google form shared across social media and in letters to local newspapers. He thinks the growing support should warrant a quick response.
“There are 309 parents that support a later start time at DHS. Awareness about this issue is growing, support for this change is increasing, too,” he told board members.
But at the Monday meeting, Dineen announced that the school board would likely not take up the issue until next spring.
While some current board members, including Dineen, will not be involved in the future discussion as they are not running for reelection this November, Dineen said the board would add start times as an agenda item to its spring and summer meetings.
Dineen reminded parents that changing the start time would be a slow process, especially as budget season approaches.
“Just to set the right expectations, the work that would have to be done from an administrative standpoint and gathering information from our neighbors that have done this – it’s a lot of work as we move quickly into budget season,” he said.