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Later school start: New Jersey pilot program worth a close look

A new — albeit limited in scope — pilot program being launched by the New Jersey Department of Education is worthy of being watched by educators in Pennsylvania and other states, even if it doesn’t spur widespread change outside of Pennsylvania’s neighbor to the east.

Anyone interested in the issue of students’ progress in classrooms should be keenly interested in whether what New Jersey plans to do will produce the kind of positive results for which that state is hopeful.

The New Jersey program is built upon one basic premise: Students who are well-rested are more attentive and, thus, perform better and retain more from their classes than students who, for whatever reason, are deprived of a sufficient amount of sleep.

According to a report this month by WHYY News in Philadelphia, the pilot program being implemented in a handful of high schools has as its basis an American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that high school starting times should be no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

WHYY quoted the New Jersey state assemblywoman who sponsored legislation to create the pilot program — Mila Jasey, D-Essex — as follows:

“Adolescents simply don’t go to sleep early, and they need more sleep than they’re getting. We know that the incidence of accidents among students who are driving to school is up, and we also know that attentiveness is down and performance possibly as well.”

WHYY also quoted Sean Spiller, a high school science teacher and a New Jersey Education Association vice president, who observed, “Often, your first-period class is a little more quiet, less participation. You can see (they’re) just not really awake yet. Once you get a little bit later in the day, many of those same kids in different classes are really much more involved and engaged.”

The argument in favor of later start times is that sleep deprivation makes high school students anxious, stressed and less focused on their classwork. However, the pilot program and the changes it might ultimately support are not being embraced universally in the Garden State, and better information retention and better grades aren’t at the heart of that thinking.

Guiding the opinion are fears about unintended negative consequences, such as complications to athletic schedules.

WHYY quoted Julie Borst, executive director of the group Save Our Schools New Jersey, who said “those kids who are participating in sports who are part of this pilot would still have to leave school at whatever time those games are happening, and so they’d have an even further truncated schedule.”

That’s an important observation, not only regarding sports but also regarding some other extracurricular activities as well.

Still, other states should watch closely and take note of successes and problems emanating from the four-year New Jersey program as it becomes entrenched.

Eventually, it will be interesting to see whether the New Jersey Department of Education endorses later start times fully and what recommendations it issues along the way for any unanticipated glitches that might arise as the pilot moves forward.

Again, there’s no guarantee any other states will follow New Jersey’s lead, but no new education ideas ever should be dismissed without receiving a fair amount of consideration.

That means all sides of the issue should routinely be accorded time to air their viewpoints.

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