Kevin Riordan: Controversy over Cherry Hill's new earlier school day

Starting in the fall, Cherry Hill secondary students will begin school a half-hour earlier each morning.

Which sounds like no big deal. Unless you've got kids, or are one.

"I hate it," says Josh Lovell, 15, a Cherry Hill West freshman. "I hate getting up."

Some parents don't like the prospect of high schools starting classes at 7:30 a.m. either. They cite studies suggesting teens learn better with a good night's sleep and worry that Cherry Hill students already are stressed out and sleep-deprived.

The school board approved the change Nov. 19 after closed negotiations with the Cherry Hill Education Association.

The union, which represents about 1,000 teachers and other staff members, ratified the half-hour addition to teachers' work days in a contract that provides raises of 6.39 percent over two years.

The new schedule "was shoved down our throats," says Norma Roth, who has two children in the system. "This is going to be very detrimental to the kids, to their emotional and physical well-being."

"What [problem] is this the answer to?" asks Stefani Kasdin, a mother of three students. "More is not necessarily better."

The township's well-regarded school system has a shorter day than "other high-quality districts in the state," says Cherry Hill superintendent Maureen Reusche.

"If an opportunity [arises] to engage in quality instruction for a longer period of time, I'm going to pursue that."

Reusche says the longer hours - which will translate into five or six more minutes in each of the day's classes - had been publicly discussed for at least a year. Changing the end of the academic day to 3 p.m. from the current 2:30 would conflict with sports and students' jobs, and would put school buses on the road in heavier traffic.

"I don't see how [starting earlier] is going to add more pressure on students," Reusche says.

Minutes become hours, however. Many teachers already are at school by 7:30, according to one staff member. But "basically, you're adding another 14 days" to the school year, education association president Martin Sharofsky says. "It made negotiations very complicated."

The early start could compromise "the ability to learn," says Maribel Ibrahim of Start School Later, a group she cofounded last year in Maryland.

The organization has gathered more than 6,000 signatures on national petitions supporting later school days.

"We see this as a matter of public health and public safety," says Ibrahim, adding that adolescent physiology leads high school students to fall asleep later than younger children. They need more rest to be alert and hence are receptive to instruction later in the morning and in the afternoon, she adds.

Though that sounds plausible, I think the notion that longer school days enhance the chance for learning is more persuasive. I also believe Cherry Hill is quite capable of adjusting to earlier hours, like those in other South Jersey districts.

But a change affecting thousands of families, as well as teachers with families of their own, deserves fuller public involvement and discussion.

Especially in a district where parents are so passionate about learning, many are likely to agree with Reusche when she says, "Cherry Hill is a very successful school system. But it's dangerous to think it can't be improved."

 


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.