PRINCETON: Mayor joins list of those supporting later school start time


Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert.

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Mayor Liz Lempert has joined other community members in supporting a proposal by Superintendent of Schools Stephen C. Cochrane to move back the starting time of Princeton High School and John Witherspoon Middle School, in a move to help students who complain they have too much work and not enough sleep.
She joined a list of former school board members, parents, including the wife of a sitting school board member, and others who signed a letter to that effect. The school district, concerned about reported high levels of student stress at the high school, is looking to do something about it.
In November, Cochrane proposed moving the start of high school from 7:50 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., and the end time from 2:51 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. JW School would have started and ended at those new times as well. Since then, however, the proposal has been modified to an 8:35 a.m. starting time and a 3:35 p.m. ending time at both schools. A decision is expected in January.
“I feel strongly that we should be following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other scientific research that shows as definitively as science can show that moving school start times later can have beneficial effects for our kids,” Mayor Lempert said Thursday by phone. “I don’t think it’s the only solution, but I think it’s a necessary and vital step that the district take.”
The mayor, former school board members Molly Chrein and Andrea Spalla, and Julia Sass Rubin, the wife of board member Greg Stankiewicz, were among the signers of the letter. Mayor Lempert, whose youngest daughter attends the high school, said her decision to sign it was in her role as a mother, not as the mayor.
“I don’t give up my right to vote and I feel like I don’t give up the right to advocate for my kids,” she said. “I feel that this is an issue I feel strongly about.”
She and her husband, Ken Norman, had attended the school board meeting on Dec. 12, with her husband speaking during public comment in favor of pushing back the start time.
This is not the first time Mayor Lempert has jumped into a school-related matter, having opposed the expansion of the Princeton Charter School. There did not appear to be pushback from the school board about the mayor adding her voice to an issue outside the sphere of municipal government business.
“She’s a parent in the district, and she’s allowed to express her concerns and share her opinions,” school board Vice President Dafna Kendal said Thursday.
For his part, Cochrane continued to advocate for why starting school later makes sense.
“The research on later school start times is also clear,” he said by email Friday. “Starting school after 8:30 for middle school and high school students does increase the hours students actually sleep, and it does show significant improvements in students’ health, attitudes about school and academic performance.”
Beyond advocating for a later start time, Mayor Lempert has a task force on teen stress whose steering committee is made up of representatives of area public and private schools, the municipality, Princeton University and Trinity Counseling.
“This is an issue where we know that there’s a lot of interest in the community,” she said, “and we ultimately hope to engage more people.”
She said the group is trying to identify projects it plans to take on, to address a “community problem.”
“The goal is not to produce a report,” she said, “but to help foster dialogue, help foster some positive changes and to help with being a clearinghouse for information.”