Webutuck’s one-bell system: pros and cons

The start of the school day is often difficult for students. They have to wake up early, get ready and meet the bus or drive to school in the wee hours of the morning. 

At the North East (Webutuck) Central School District, high school students begin their day at 7:30 a.m. and end at 2:20 p.m., while elementary and primary students start at 8:40 a.m. and end at 3:15 p.m. Even if hoping to emulate a real work day in the professional world, rarely does one start his or her day in the office before 9 a.m.

To determine whether students should move from this tiered system to a one-bell system, the school board sanctioned the Student Day Committee. It included in its ranks Board of Education (BOE) members, parents, teachers and members of the district’s Transportation Department. The committee presented a report to the BOE on Dec. 11, 2017.

What it found, and what we believe is critical information when making such an important decision, is that students perform better when they start later in the day — meaning high schoolers should sleep in rather than head to class at 7:30 a.m. That means the district would move to starting the school day at 8 a.m. for secondary students instead, running until 2:43 p.m. For elementary and primary students, it would mean starting earlier, though, at 8:15 a.m. and running until 2:30 p.m.

A one-bell system — it brings with it solutions, but also many questions. First, though, to the positives. Studies have proven that due to rapidly changing hormonal levels, teens require eight to 10 hours of sleep a night, though many can’t fall asleep until after 11 p.m. When they are sleep deprived, students can’t learn, listen, concentrate or solve problems as well as when they have enough sleep. That could lead to increased susceptibility to viruses and infections, depression and mood disorders, as well as an increased risk of being overweight. 

Because of such concerns, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend moving school starting times to later in the day. The Webutuck BOE agrees, based on the findings from the Student Day Committee.

Included in those findings are concerns that students must wait at bus stops or drive on the roads in the dark during the early morning; that younger students won’t have older siblings to look after them when they arrive home at different times of the day, making it tougher for parents to work and find decent child care; and, of course, that academics suffer, tardiness and disciplinary action increases, graduation rates drop and failure rates spike. There are clearly a lot of concerns, reasons why a later start time seems like a good idea.

But wait — there are concerns on the other side, too. Namely, is it safe to have younger students ride on the bus with older ones? What will they hear, what will they see, what will they experience as a result? Parents worry, and with good reason. Between  bullying and bad language, there’s no end to what our young students could be exposed to.  

The district has said it will create a Bus Buddies system, where older students will teach younger students the rules and proper bus behavior. That sounds fine, but is it realistic? Older students will have their own agendas, their own social groups, their own needs to attend to each morning. Also, will they respect the age difference and treat the younger students kindly and appropriately? We would hope so, but if not, what then? And how can a bus driver — driving more students now — make sure everyone is polite, considerate and orderly? It would seem difficult, at best.

There is a cost savings to consider, with the district saving a potential $122,745 in payroll, benefits and fuel. But, said Superintendent of Schools Ray Castellani, cost was not the driver of this change, which was OK’d by the school board this past winter with unanimous support.

We can see the pros and the cons of moving to a one-bell system. The BOE appears to have done its due diligence in investigating the matter. It held meetings to discuss the issue with parents and other stakeholders. 

There is a petition at present, however, started by Millerton parent Lindsey Miles to request the BOE reverse its decision. There’s no sense that the board will change its mind, though.

It’s a difficult situation, and a complex issue. Perhaps the best we can hope for is for the district to keep an open mind. If implementing a one-bell system works, great. If it doesn’t, maybe the BOE will re-evaluate and readjust. As with all things in life, there’s a learning curve to consider.