When four Maine school board chairs, assembled in an old, brick New England textile mill, struck their gavels simultaneously on April 6, 2016, it marked an extraordinary agreement to start four local secondary schools at 8:30 a.m., nearly an hour later than the existing school day start times.
In doing so, the assembled leaders — representing the cities of Biddeford and Saco, the town of Dayton and the Thornton Academy, Saco's public-private high school — made their communities the first in Maine to comply with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation that, for the sake of adolescent health, safety and success, middle and high schools delay the start the class to 8:30 a.m. or later. The shift, says the AAP, "will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty."
Soon after the school time decision, in another groundbreaking effort to improve community livability, the city of Saco joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities.
Biddeford followed with its own age-friendly enrollment that fall. Volunteers in each community, along with supportive mayors and city governments, are using the AARP/World Health Organization "8 Domains of Livability" framework to plan services and coordinate city services for older adults.
The two efforts — one focused on the young, the other for those older — are examples of how the Biddeford-Saco community is working on multiple fronts to become, as the AARP Livable Communities initiative puts it, "livable for people of all ages."
Located about 20 miles south of Portland, Saco and Biddeford are two cities that form one community of more than 40,000 people. The area is becoming an attractive home base for millennials, thanks to an extensive renewal of an old asset — the huge textile mills that made the two cities a major economic center during the industrial revolution.
The mills, abandoned for much of the past four decades, are being renovated to house hundreds of new apartments, artist work spaces and studios, artisanal workshops, and small enterprises such as breweries and a new dye house serving today's smaller textile enterprises. Young workers are finding a place to live and work in a walkable downtown served by public transportation, including an Amtrak stop in Saco.
"The enthusiasm that we’re seeing is infectious," says Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant. "We see ourselves as one community connected by a river." A footbridge encouraging that connection is now open in the mill district.
"If you told our kids we'd be going back to the old system we'd have a revolt," says Jeremy Ray, superintendent of Biddeford Public Schools. Ray provided early leadership for the later school start initiative. The new schedule was implemented for the 2016-2017 academic year and had a very successful debut.
"There was a visible difference in our grades," Ray says. In addition, the schools experienced fewer absences and late arrivals by students, fewer nurse visits and suspensions, and fewer failing grades for students in their first period classes.
"The teachers have reported that the students are more alert," agrees Rene Menard, headmaster of the Thornton Academy.
"The science is not new. It's something we've known for a long time. We know the sleep schedule of adolescents is different than adults," says Menard, referring to the developmental norms of adolescence and biologically determined sleep patterns that lead teens, who need more sleep than adults do, to not feel sleepy until later at night.
Turning the science into advocacy involved starting a local chapter of Start School Later, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that's leading the national effort for safe, healthy and developmentally appropriate school hours. (See the Local Successes, Setbacks and Aha Moments section below to learn more.)
Saco resident Tracey Collins formed Start School Later Southern Maine in 2014. She and her husband, a family physician, understood the health consequences of sleep deprivation. Like other Saco parents struggling to rouse tired teens at 5:30 a.m. for a 6:40 a.m. school bus and 7:20 a.m. school start, Collins says, "we were frustrated by the absurdity of having to wake our children at a time they had never been awake before."
With the support of Saco schools superintendent Ray, Collins enlisted local pediatricians, sports physicians and family doctors, including both school districts' consulting physicians, to educate the community about the health benefits for adolescents of later school start times and to position the change as a public health issue.
A letter signed by nine physicians who care for 80 percent of the young people in the community helped start the community discussion. The doctors outlined the later-hours sleepiness of teenagers, the critical issues surrounding the release of melatonin, and the "shifted" biological clocks that are ticking during adolescence.
Ray thinks being able to say, "This is what your kid's doctor is telling us," helped focus the effort and tamp down common but unfounded arguments that later school starts "coddle kids," disrupt school staff and family schedules, and negatively impact after-school jobs, sports and clubs.
Mayor Casavant, a retired Biddeford High School teacher, recalls years of witnessing firsthand the ineffectiveness of too-early school start times. "The first block was always a nightmare because they were so groggy," he says of the students.
As part of each city's membership in the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, Age Friendly Saco has identified as an early priority need "communication and better access to information for older community members."
The committee is preparing a resource directory and will work on matching home repair contractors and young people with older residents who could use a bit of help. Jean Saunders, Saco's volunteer age-friendly committee chair, and Menard, the Thornton Academy headmaster and committee member, each envision students helping with tasks such as leaf raking, snow shoveling and dog walking. Menard hopes to build the work into existing student service organizations.
"We want to do a lot more and we're just getting started," notes Saunders.
Biddeford Age-Friendly is completing a survey that will be a major input into its age-friendly plan. The city's recreation program has many activities for older residents, and the focus will be on extending other kinds of services. The nearby town of Old Orchard Beach, which has also moved its school start time to 8:30, joined the AARP age-friendly network in August 2017. The three communities hope to work together on age-friendly issues.
"We're excited to see the communities working together to make the region more age-friendly," says Lori Parham, AARP Maine State Director. "Across Maine, towns and citizens are working together to make Maine a place where people of all ages want to live, work and play."
A History Lesson
It's not unusual for parents and grandparents of a certain age to tell stories about how they had to walk miles to school, regardless of the weather, because there were no school buses or their family had only one car (if any). However, few of those adults tell stories about how they had to wake long before dawn and travel to school in the dark.
According to the National Center for Health Research, in the 1950s and 1960s most schools started between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Due to factors including the 1970s recession, suburban sprawl and the consolidation from smaller neighborhood schools to larger centralized ones, the start times of elementary, middle and high schools were staggered, with the high school starts moving one or two hours earlier in order to re-use the same buses and drivers for multiple runs.
"I was not overly concerned about high school early start times until seeing my 9th grade granddaughter, and all the other students, trekking to the neighborhood bus stop in the full dark of night at 6 a.m.," says Gail Enright, a septuagenarian and lifelong resident of Anne Arundel County, Maryland (see more, below). "Even when our generation had to walk two miles through all sorts of weather when schools never closed, it was daylight."
Today, in communities nationwide, many students can't walk to school — and many people of every age can't walk anywhere — because sidewalks are scarce, vehicle speeds are too fast and streets are too wide to cross.
Successes, Setbacks and Aha Moments
When Greenwich, Connecticut, joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities in December 2016, it became the state's first community to do so. The Greenwich Commission on Aging, which is leading the planning effort, made "Livable Communities: A Vision for the Future," the theme of its 2017 Late Life Issues Professional Conference.
When the town's public schools opened for the 2017-2018 school year, it did so with a new 8:30 a.m. high school start time. Greenwich High School previously started at 7:30 a.m.
Valerie Erde, who with a dozen other parents formed a Start School Later Greenwich chapter and worked for the change, said her family used to dread the start of the school year because it meant "getting up in the dark at 6 a.m. and feeling tired all the time." Advocating for the schedule change, which was approved by a split school board vote after significant community debate, was eye-opening. "It's amazing that something that seems as simple as changing the high school schedule by one hour took nearly three years to achieve," Erde says.
Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D., the co-founder and executive director of Start School Later, is still waiting for her own school system to awaken. Snider has invested much of the past two decades advocating for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, the district for communities in and surrounding the Maryland state capital of Annapolis, to change its 7:17 a.m. high school start time. Finally, with the start of the 2017 school year, the school district's leadership agreed. AACPS high schools now start 13 minutes later — at 7:30 a.m., a full hour earlier than recommended by medical and educational experts.
Says Snider about the slow pace of progress in her own backyard: "Many other communities have similar frustrations. After a while, I began to realize the problem was not going to be solved by my school district in isolation. Thus, Start School Later was born."
Peter Morelli is a freelance writer and livable communities consultant based in Portland, Maine. He is a former planning and development director for the city of Saco. Melissa Stanton, editor of AARP Livable Communities and a Start School Later volunteer, contributed to this article.
Article published September 2017