Unofficial Minutes: Policy Subcommittee Meeting on 05/19/2016 – Key Points and Commentary

Note:  These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the end of the minutes.

Subcommittee members:  Guido Guidotti, Chair; Eileen Hsu-Balzer; Liz Yusem; Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent

Attendees in the audience: John Portz (SC), Candace Miller (SC), Rebecca Grow (WSS), David Stokes (WSS), Donna Rusekas (and 2 other WPS Administration folks), Stephanie Venizelos (Live Well Watertown and WPS Wellness Committee), Erica Dorenkamp, Charlie Breitrose (Watertown News).

Changing Start Times for WPS

Dr. Fitzgerald reported plans to move the Middle School and High School start times to 8:30 AM.  She said that she was meeting with all the Superintendents in the Middlesex League, and they were all in agreement to move start times later.  However, she acknowledged that Watertown seemed to be slightly ahead of the other districts, as only Melrose has actually moved their start time to 8:15 AM for Fall 2016, and the other districts will most likely not finalize moving their start times until Fall 2017.

She mentioned the need to involve elementary school families in conversations about changing school start times and noted issues related to busing (remembering that moving start times also moves end times).  She suggested the possibility of flipping schedules so Elementary schools would start at some time before or around 8:00 AM.  She proposed waiting until September 2017 to implement changes in schedules, which would give families and staff time to make adjustments to their lives.  Adjustments to professional development and athletics are also obvious considerations.

Eileen echoed Dr. Fitzgerald’s comments about keeping end times in mind, and was also considering surveying parents, students, and staff again about school start times, this time in relation to a specific plan.  Liz agreed on this point about a new survey.

Eileen asked about required discussions with the Watertown Educators Association (the teachers’ union), and suggested that the conversation start now.  She noted that it would be “very sudden” to make this schedule change during the next academic year (starting in September 2016).

Liz agreed with an alignment with the other Middlesex League districts.  She also desired more “careful consideration” at a more granular level, meaning a more detailed review of the moving parts that would be affected by a change in the start times of the schools in WPS.

Guido and the other subcommittee members agreed that the sleep science and students’ health should take priority over matters like busing schedules and district costs in dictating school start times (and the science supports 8:30 AM for WMS and WHS).   They acknowledged that any differences between the medical science and the parental needs must be weighed carefully.  They also voted to recommend (based on the Superintendent’s suggestion) that the School Committee commit to making the change at the next SC meeting, but wait until September 2017 to actually make the changes, while studying and preparing for the required changes during the 2016-17 Academic Year.  Extracurricular programs (after-school and athletic programs), along with teachers’ and parents’ child care scheduling issues, need to be taken into consideration while “thoughtfully moving forward” and planning the changes necessary for September 2017.

Eileen mentioned that by waiting until September 2017, the potential, additional costs could be included during the FY18 budget cycle.  Liz agreed that significant, meaningful changes needed to be made, which required time to reflect on what will be most beneficial for the students and WPS, as a whole.  Eileen thought it would be prudent to continue to get additional feedback from all of the Principals.

Rebecca Grow stated that parents of middle school students wouldn’t want to wait.  On the other hand, waiting would be an opportunity to inform the community about sleep science so they understand better why the change is put into place.  Also, students could be surveyed about their sleep to help measure the impact of the change.  She mentioned studies that showed giving plenty of time for (every stakeholder’s) adjustment is important to the success of the change.

Erica Dorenkamp commented that the survey that had been distributed and reported on at the last SC meeting had been unscientific.  Rather than a randomized survey, the survey relied on a self-selecting set of respondents.  She conveyed that another survey, unless conducted scientifically, would not be worthwhile.  Eileen suggested that a secondary effect of the survey (scientifically conducted or not) is one method of communication with the stakeholders about the School Committee’s thoughts on the subject.

Stephanie Venizelos asked for the sake of WMS students, who start at 7:40 AM, if there is any way WPS could change start times in September 2016 – if not to 8:30 AM, then at least to 7:55 AM, which is when the HS starts.  She described it as a sort of “phased approach”.  John Portz also spoke in support of changing the MS start time in 2016, pointing out specifically the benefit of that change to the 5th Graders transitioning to 6th Grade in September 2016. Dr. Fitzgerald did not dismiss the idea, but acknowledged that busing issues would need to be identified and, if possible, remedied (which might require additional funds).

Eileen suggested that changing the MS start time in 2016 could be a way to pilot test making additional changes more widely. The Subcommittee formally requested that Dr. Fitzgerald present at the June 6 SC meeting about all the factors, including busing and Elementary School schedules, that would be involved in starting WMS later this fall.

Expansion of the Athletics Subcommittee into a Wellness Subcommittee

Candace Miller proposed expanding the scope of the Athletics Subcommittee to encompass student development from a holistic perspective.  At the Subcommittee’s request, she read her proposal, which was published in the Watertown News

Candace asked the Subcommittee to consider including these topics in a revised subcommittee: “social-emotional learning, physical and mental health, and extracurricular activities such as athletics, the arts, and other clubs and teams.”  The proposal, while benefitting all students, aimed to address gaps in the care and mental health support that some students experience due to a variety of social- and emotional-based stressors.

Ms. Yusem responded by reading information about By All Means, a major initiative from Harvard Graduate School of Education, started in February 2016, with the aim of rethinking education and child development systems toward achieving equity in education.  She seemed to suggest that goals related to optimizing student social-emotional learning and wellbeing would be better addressed through this initiative at the all-encompassing city-wide and national levels rather than by any individual school district alone – or at least that the By All Means initiative would be the better group to take the lead.

There were questions about the need for this sort of subcommittee if (1) the WPS staff already respond to and address these types of concerns and (2) the scopes of both the Curriculum Subcommittee and the Policy Subcommittee already include the topics that Candace proposed.  The Subcommittee members also raised concerns about student privacy; Eileen commented that privacy has to be “above and beyond” the primary concern when dealing with this sort of subject.

Candace could not stay for the discussion, but she expressed concern that there be a place where we discuss relevant issues for WPS, like the ones identified in her proposal.  

In her absence, both the Subcommittee members and members of the audience identified a need for further clarification of the proposal.

While members of the Subcommittee expressed skepticism about the need for the proposed expanded subcommittee, Mr. Portz suggested such a subcommittee could help the School Committee to better connect with social-emotional support activities and ensure that there are venues for sharing information.  For example, the proposed subcommittee would be a good location for in-depth discussion of the Wayside Youth Services study of student behavior. Conducting careful review in the subcommittee could help to shorten the overly long School Committee meeting agendas.  David Stokes added that a subject like school start times would be appropriate for such a subcommittee.

The subcommittee members interpreted Dr. Miller’s proposal to include two topics:  (1) social-emotional learning/student development, and (2) expanding the Athletics Subcommittee to include other extracurricular activities.

The Subcommittee voted to recommend to the full School Committee an expansion of the scope of the Athletics Subcommittee to include WHS Drama Club and other extracurricular activities.  They pointed out that policy language does not exist yet, and that they would need to explore the full boundaries and policy-based aspects of the change.  Eileen also mentioned that the process, once the policy language is approved by the Policy Subcommittee and voted to recommend to the full School Committee, is to have a first reading at one SC meeting and then a Public Hearing and possible vote to adopt at a second SC meeting.  She acknowledged that this is a time-consuming process.

To address the former topic, they voted to recommend that a member of the School Committee sit on the WPS Wellness Committee to increase and improve communication related to student social-emotional wellbeing issues.


Rebecca Grow

Given the support expressed for starting school later, I am hopeful that the middle school will start no earlier than 7:55am as of this fall.

The ideas that Candace presented are important. It is great that Harvard and other national leaders who can influence education policy are also pursuing student social-emotional well-being and that we can learn and our students can benefit from such work.

Yet we should not rely solely on high-level discussions to address these urgent concerns. Local knowledge, inquiry, and actions are necessary to addressing the needs of all our students and especially our at-risk youth.

I don't know the full purview of the WPS Wellness Committee, but it seems like a good location for work on this subject, and I agree that it is important for the School Committee to be actively engaged in considering social-emotional needs as part of our (formal and informal) curriculum and school policies.

The recommendations to expand the scope of the Athletics Subcommittee and to have a SC member sit on the WPS Wellness Committee seem like good steps toward achieving some of the proposal's intent.

Minutes written by: Rebecca Grow and David Stokes