Opinion: Time to Reset When Belmont Schools Start The Day

Photo: Sleep deprivation among adolescents is a chronic problem across the country and here in Belmont.

By Andrea Prestwich and Steve Saar, Belmont Start School Later

For one Belmont High School senior, the beginning of the school year – which starts today, Wednesday, Sept. 2 – is a double edge sword; the excitement of their final year in the public schools is dampened in trying to stay awake to enjoy the moment. 

“It’s really difficult to maintain your focus in class when you don’t get enough sleep. Belmont High School is a great school with high standards, but it’s difficult to keep up when you’re chronically tired,” the senior said, who manages to sleep seven hours on a “good” night.

Our daughter is another example. She is a 12-year-old Chenery Middle School student who says she feels “heavy, slow, grumpy and lethargic” on most school mornings.

What’s wrong with these kids? As it turns out, NOTHING! Many – if not most – middle and high school students in Belmont struggle with chronic sleepiness as they are forced out of bed at 6:30 a.m. or earlier to get to school.

Numerous scientific studies have shown that as kids hit puberty their sleep rhythms change. They naturally fall asleep later and get up later. Asking a teen to get up at 6:30 a.m. is like asking an adult to get up at 4 a.m.; they are deep into their natural sleep cycle. Studies also show adolescents need eight-and-a-half to nine-and-a-half hours of sleep each night.

Depriving kids of sleep at such a crucial period of their development can lead to serious long-term health consequences, including:

  • increased risks of obesity
  • diabetes
  • hypertension
  • stroke
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • substance abuse
  • Accidents while driving.

Sleep deprivation among adolescents is a chronic problem across the country, linked to poor impulse control and self-regulation – sleepy kids make bad decisions – impairments in attention and memory and deficits in abstract thinking.

Student athletes are especially impacted by sleep deprivation. A study highlighted by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that “athletes who slept eight or more hours each night were 68 percent less likely to be injured than athletes who regularly slept less.”

The scale of the problem has been recognized by the Center for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the Society for Pediatric Nurses, the National Association of School Nurses, and the National Sleep Foundation, all endorsing later school start time, with middle and high schools opening no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

So, with just about every professional medical organization in the country endorsing later school start times, why does Belmont begin the Chenery day at 7:55 a.m. and Belmont High at 7:35 a.m?

Sometimes the reason is economics. Many schools set start times decades ago to save transportation costs by running the same busses in three cycles for the high school, middle school and elementary school. Starting schools early also leaves more time in the afternoon for athletics and other after-school activities.

The current schedule would make sense if adolescents had a “sleep mode” button, but sadly, evolution has not seen fit to equip them with one. You just can’t put teens to bed at 9:30 p.m. and expect them to go to sleep immediately and wake bright and early at 6 a.m. as the schedule is contrary to their natural sleep rhythms.

If you put teens to bed at 9:30 p.m. they will toss and turn until 11 p.m. when they will finally start to feel drowsy. The adage “early to bed and early to rise” doesn’t apply to adolescents; they are creatures of the night!

So why not change Belmont to a healthier, later schedule? First, there’s a widespread belief that if schools start later kids will stay up later. This is not true. A landmark study looked at 18,000 high school students in Minneapolis before and after the district’s school start time changed from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. The main conclusion was that high school students slept an hour longer on average when their school started later. They went to bed at the same time as before the time change and slept longer. 

Athletics is another consideration. Currently, schools in the Middlesex League have early starting times. If Belmont were to shift to a healthier, later schedule, our athletes would be out of sync with the rest of the league. Practice times would also have to change, possibly causing a ripple effect and impacting youth groups who use the same facilities.

Other barriers to a later schedule include the need to re-think before- and after-school programs and the impact on some kids with part-time jobs. 

There are certainly obstacles to shifting Belmont High and the Chenery to start later but none is insurmountable. For example, bus schedules could be reversed so that Winn Brook starts first at around 7:45 a.m., then the High School just after 8:30 a.m., Wellington, and Chenery later. Elementary school kids are usually up with the larks, bouncing on their beds – they have sleep rhythms naturally suited to an earlier start. 

Start School Later has local chapters across Massachusetts working for later start times, and we are working with Massachusetts legislators. Hopefully, Belmont will join other districts as they shift times.

Even though there are difficulties in changing school start times, it is not acceptable for our kids to be sleep deprived, any more than it is acceptable for them to go without food or any other life necessity. And sleep is a necessity of life. Our kids should start the school day well fed and rested. The current start times make this impossible.

School districts around the country have shifted to healthier schedules with very positive results: kids are more alert and less grumpy, there are lower rates of tardiness and fewer missed school days. They arrive at school ready to learn.

We ask Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan and the Belmont School Committee follow the recommendations and shift Belmont schools to healthier schedules.


They’re Back! First Day of School in Belmont Wednesday, Sept. 2

Photo: Crossing the street at the Burbank. 

Remember the alarm clock? It probably hasn’t been heard since the last week in June; but starting today, it returns as a weekday companion for parents and children as Wednesday, Sept. 2, marks the first day of school in Belmont for student in 1st through 12th grades.

Kindergarten students get to sleep in for a week, as the youngest Belmont students start on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 8 and 9.

Belmont High School starts at 7:35 a.m.; Chenery Middle School at 7:55 a.m.; the Burbank, Butler and Wellington elementary schools at 8:40 a.m.; and the Winn Brook at 8:50 a.m. 

For school hours, the school-year calendar, bus routes, lunch menus, and more information, go to www.belmont.k12.ma.us/bps/

With students being greeted by temperatures reaching the lower 90s on both days – and with several schools lacking adequate air conditioning – school officials are suggesting students come to school with water and stay hydrated.

On these first two days of the 2015-16 year – the six Belmont public schools will be closed Friday, Sept. 4 through Monday, Sept. 7 for the Labor Day holiday – Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan is asking for parents and students to be safe and patient.

Phelan said due to street closures and road construction throughout the town, drivers learning new routes and parents giving long goodbyes to children on their first days, buses will likely be delayed. 

Parents driving their children to school along with students driving to Belmont High School are also being asked to be patient while each school’s administration works out the kinks of their drop-off and pick-up plans.

In addition, Phelan and the Belmont Police are asking all drivers “to be mindful of our students who are walking or biking to school.”  

“The sidewalks, streets,  and parking lots will be congested and we want to make sure all can share the road safely,” said Phelan. 

Beginning this year following a suggestion by Phelan, the district has adopted a pre-Labor Day opening to the school year. Phelan hopes starting school for two days, followed by the four-day Labor Day holiday and four days of school “will facilitate a smooth transition for our children.”

“This gradual start will give our students a chance to meet their teachers this week, find out expectations for the year, and set up their school routines,” said Phelan in his opening day memo sent to parents and teachers.

“Then, hopefully, they can spend the four-day weekend stress-free and return to school Tuesday refreshed and prepared to learn,” he noted.

Eye of the Marauder: Belmont High’s New Court Up and Running

Photo: The new court at the Wenner.

Just six months after getting together with a group of friends at Conley’s Pub for a beer and to throw around the “wild” idea of replacing the worst basketball court – the vinyl floor at Belmont High’s Wenner Field House – any high school team had to play on, John Carson was standing on a shiny, new surface ready for action.  

“This is amazing,” said Carson, as he and that original group of supporters, school officials and the captains of this coming season’s Belmont High basketball celebrated the court’s completion at Wenner Field House on Monday, Aug. 31.

“Amazing that, one, we pulled it off, and two, it looks this damn good,” he said.


John Carson.

The new stone grey and dark blue court – which will be inaugurated by Belmont High’s Volleyball team at a scrimmage this week – is a composite surface that took Rockland-based American Sport Floors about five weeks to complete.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” said Carson, who said once the original group of supporters – made up of himself, Paula Christofori, Jon Baldi, Chris Messer and David Ramsey – decided to move forward with the plan, it would take “only 10 to 12 weeks to get the money to do all this.”

The new court is an example of a growing trend in Belmont where – whether out of frustration or due to  philanthropic intentions – residents, businesses and groups join to raise the private funds needed to build or improve public infrastructure that town government is finding harder to finance.

Recently, private monies have been used to repair school playgrounds, irrigate town fields and “rescue” the new swimming facility, to name a few. 

The new varsity court joins the list of privately funded/public amenities that included a pair of $35,000 contributions; from the Belmont Savings Bank Foundation and Belmont Youth Basketball Association. 

“In no way did [Belmont Savings] want their logo on [the center court] because they wanted to do the right thing, so hats off to them,” said Carson.

An additional $40,000 was collected from private individuals – “from $10 to $5,000,” said Carson – and $15,000 from Belmont Boosters allowed for the entire varsity areas to be redone. 

The adjacent JV court and surrounding areas will be completed in the summer of 2016 financed by a $100,000 appropriation from the town’s Capital Budget Committee.

Carson also praised Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan as “someone who gets things done” for making the project a priority “because it will be used by all students, and that was a key for him.” 

Opening the court to the players for a brief shoot-around – Carson said hopefully the new court “will bring a championship with it.”

“No pressure, guys,” he said to the players. 


Medal of Honor Recipients To Speak At Belmont High Sept. 16

Photo: Clint Romesha, a Medal of Honor recepient, will speak at Belmont High School.

The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. The actions by the soldiers, sailors and airmen to earn this award is heroic in every possible way.

Of the approximately 3,670 military personnel whom the medal has been bestowed since the Civil War, only about 79 are living today. 

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, three men who were awarded this highest military honor –  Tom Norris, a Navy SEAL who fought in Vietnam, Clint Romesha, a soldier from the Afghan War and Donald Ballard, a Navy Corpsman from the Vietnam War – will speak to mostly sophomores at Belmont High School about themselves and the courage, commitment and sacrifice they demonstrated.

“This is a really rare and unusual experience for our students and we are honored to have been selected,” said Deb McDevitt, the Belmont Public School’s social studies director and teacher at the High School. 

The honorees will arrive by helicopter around 8:45 a.m. and speak to the students from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., McDevitt told the Belmontonian. 

As part of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society Conference being held this month in Boston, the society conducts outreach programs at area schools “to share their stories with students and educate the public with all the things they are able to do and lessons they learned,” said McDevitt.

The society connected with Belmont High School through an alumnus who is one of the 79 living recipients. Robert Foley (graduate ’59), who was awarded his medal for actions during his service in the Vietnam conflict, is unable to attend the conference but suggested his alma mater as one of the schools on the speakers list. 

“They contacted me to see if we would be willing to host and welcome these speakers and I immediately said ‘Of course!'” said McDevitt. “It was no question that we would do this.” 

The sophomore class was selected to hear from the men as the talk dovetails with the curriculum 10th graders are studying in General American History. 

“One of the essential questions we focus our whole year around is what’s America’s place in the world,” said McDevitt.

“When they hear these stories at the beginning of the year, students are going to have a much richer understanding of the wars the nation fought and the relationships and alliances we’ve had with other countries. This will ground their studies with real-life meaning for all the work they’ll be doing for the rest of the year,” McDevitt said.