Eden Prairie school board hears citizen concerns on start times, recess

Parents stand in line to address the Eden Prairie School Board, each advocating for later school start times, expanded recess, or both. (Sun Current staff photo by Sean Miner)
Parents stand in line to address the Eden Prairie School Board, each advocating for later school start times, expanded recess, or both. (Sun Current staff photo by Sean Miner)
By Sean Miner
Sun Current Newspapers

Concern over two distinct but intertwined issues drove more than a dozen citizens to address the school board at its Jan. 23 meeting. Each of the 15 speakers, all of whom said that they have children or grandchildren attending school within the district, asked the board to consider two actions, both aimed at promoting student health and wellness, according to the speakers.

Those two actions were pushing start times for middle and high school students later in the morning expanding daily recess times for elementary-age students. Some of the speakers focused on only one action, while others touched on both.

But, the loosely-organized group spoke universally in support of each initiative.

“It was nice to see a number of different faces and voices on these issues,” said Jennie Pinnow, one of the organizers behind the speakers’ joint appeal to the school board. “We have well over 100 members on our Facebook page, which was started with the intent that people could continue the conversation concerning school start times, as well as recess.”

Pinnow noted that this wasn’t the first time the proposed actions had been brought up, either in the community or in formal consideration by the school board. The two changes have been considered as part of the school district’s Designing Pathways initiative, as far back as February 2016.

The surge in speakers was in response to recent decisions by the school board to not pursue those options, said Pinnow. Though this decision would maintain the status quo, some parents in the district had advocated strongly for the changes, and responded to the decision with increased pressure.

According to many of the speakers, student health and well-being is at the core of both issues.

Later start times

Dr. Sujata Costello, family physician and mother of an eighth-grader and a third-grader, spoke in favor of later start times, calling lack of sleep a “public health concern.”

According to Costello, the average adolescent should get nine hours of sleep — she described the age-old prescription of eight hours as “borderline” for the age group. But, she cited a poll that found that many adolescents only get seven hours of sleep each night.

She also noted studies that found adolescents exhibit a circadian phase delay, meaning that they are biologically inclined toward both falling asleep later and rising later in the morning.
Lastly, Costello cited studies that found students at schools who had switched to later start times both performed better in academic tests and had lower instances of motor vehicle crash
rates.

Andrea Leyland, pediatric dentist and mother to a sixth-grader and seventh-grader, also spoke in favor of pushing start times back, echoing some of the findings noted by Costello.

“The stresses placed upon this generation are great, and by no means am I saying that it’s going to be easy,” said Leyland. “We should give these kids every advantage we can.”

Mary McMullin, another of the key figures in organizing the group, also advocated for later start times. She said that only 20 percent of Minnesota schools start before 8 a.m., and pointed out that neighboring school districts made the switch years ago.

Others offered more anecdotal evidence, such as Wayne Benson, father of three boys. He described the difference between his fifth-grader, up at 6:30 a.m. each morning and raring to go, and his middle- and high-school aged boys, where he noted that “it’s all we can do to get breakfast down them.”

“The late start time would be extremely helpful, both to our family life and to their academic and physical development,” said Benson.

Expanded recess

Other parents spoke in favor of expanding the recess time allotted to younger students. Currently, elementary-age students are given 20 minutes each day for recess.

Dr. Amy Syvertson, director of research at the Search Institute with a focus on positive youth development and mother of a student at Eagle Heights Spanish Immersion School, was one such parent. She described the evidence in support of unstructured free play as “both overwhelmingly positive and compelling.”

According to Syvertson, that play can help foster attentive and productive classroom behaviors as well as self-regulation.

Gena Gerard, mother of two students at Central Middle School, relayed what one member of the group had gleaned from a meeting with Bloomington’s Olson Elementary School Principal Paul Meyer on the topic. Meyer had told the parent that expanding recess had resulted in fewer “quiet room” referrals and students who were more ready to learn and more productive despite losing
instructional minutes to recess.

Lisa Pullring, a middle-school counselor and mother of three boys, also advocated for expanding recess.

“As educators, we want our kids to perform academically, but yet we don’t help our kids with these vital breaks,” said Pullring.

She said that this time is helpful for all, but said that it can be crucial for some, pointing to the example of one of her sons. Pullring described her son as “very sensory-oriented” and noted that he “performs better with breaks,” to the point that his teacher arranged time for the child to engage in more physical activity, which Pullring said had been beneficial.

“My family is proof that extra recess can be helpful,” said Pullring. “Don’t just hear what we’re saying, but rather take action and make a change in the lives of our children.”

Road to implementation

Ultimately, the ball now rests squarely in the school board’s court on both issues. The most common request among the speakers was for the board to form an investigative committee to look at each action, and for the board to rely on a data-driven approach to the policies.

Pinnow noted that she was pleased with the turnout among the concerned parents.

“We just encouraged people to come and express their feelings and ideas,” said Pinnow. “We had no idea what other people were going to say. I thought it was a really good representation of some of the community’s concerns.”

When addressing the school board herself, Pinnow expressed frustration that a survey taken by the school board had found that just over three in four people surveyed supported additional recess time, but that hadn’t swayed the board’s decision.

That survey, however, conflicts with another conducted by the school district on the topic, as a statement issued by Superintendent Curt Tryggestad pointed out.

“We must clarify [that] the majority of our parent community supports the current amount of time we provide for recess and physical activity as evidenced through the scientifically valid random sample survey that was conducted in July in addition to the feedback gathered through the input session,” said Tryggestad.

Tryggestad noted that that same survey also asked the district’s parent community for feedback related to school start times at all of its levels of education.

“We will continue to look at this through Phase 2 of the process as a potential solution to implement the recommendations,” said Tryggestad. “However, more work needs to be done and community feedback considered prior to any decision.”

Though Pinnow expressed frustration that she and others felt the need to show up en masse with regard to the situation, others relished the chance for dialogue. Beth Ye, a developmental psychologist and mother, framed this point in the conversation as an opportunity.

“I think you’re really lucky that you have constituents who are coming to you saying, ‘Here’s the data,’” said Ye. “As an institutional researcher in higher education, I can say that doesn’t always happen. I think there’s a great amount of opportunity here — people in the community that can provide more information. I’m definitely one of those, and I am happy to offer any services I can.”

Tryggestad’s statement emphasized that more public input would be taken and considered, citing nine community input sessions that had taken place in the first phase of the initiative.

“We greatly appreciate and value the time, concern and attention parents, staff and students have committed to this process,” said Tryggestad. “From the very beginning, we have built Designing Pathways around ensuring there is quality community involvement.”

Tryggestad noted that “nearly 30 more” public input sessions were slated to take place through the final phase of the initiative. He also pointed out that the public’s opinion of the initiative appeared to be mostly positive.

“We are pleased the majority of our parent community has reported through scientifically valid random sample surveys that they are aware of the process and are supportive of the direction of the district, our communication practices, level of trust and support for our decision-making process,” said Tryggestad.

Pinnow said the group would continue to push for inclusion of these two actions in the Designing Pathways initiative in any way that they could. She said she hopes the data would speak for itself.

“I think that we have explored as many avenues as have been available to us through this process,” said Pinnow. “When you consider making the best possible learning environment for students, student health is part of that equation.”

The next Eden Prairie School Board regular business meeting is 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27.