Community divided sharply over moving Dixon schools’ start time

Community Engagement Committee reviews results from January survey

Committee member Sarah Purlee follows along during the meeting Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022 in Dixon.

DIXON — The community is sharply divided on a proposal about moving the start of the school day 45 minutes later for the 2022-23 school year, a survey conducted by the Dixon Public Schools community engagement committee shows.

Presently, the school day is 7:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. The proposal recommends a school day from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Of respondents, 766 strongly disagreed and 267 disagreed with the proposal, while 554 strongly agreed and 250 agreed. Some 250 people took a neutral stance on the issue.

In fact, there is such strong sentiments on both sides, without gaining a consensus, the committee thinks a thoughtful pause on the issue is merited.

“It’s not the right time, based on the feedback we’re getting,” said Rachael Gehlbach, the board vice president who moderated the committee meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Members appeared by video conference and in-person at the district offices to review the results of the survey, which was conducted in January from the district’s website.

Initially, the committee had intended to simply share the results with the board of education during Wednesday’s regular meeting without making a recommendation.

But the survey brought to light many areas of student life that could be changed by the proposal. Uncertainty about how the change would affect child care, extra-curricular activities and student employment were the main concerns.

“There’s a need for further study,” said committee member Woody Lenox. “We need to look at it differently. It’s not going to go away. There’s a variety of ways this could go.”

The impetus for the survey was research that linked more sleep with later start times, giving students a better chance at academic growth.

Superintendent Margo Empen opened the meeting by reading a letter from a parent, Stacie Kemp, that expressed how a later start would not produce more sleep time for her children.

Margo Empen, Dixon schools superintendent, reads a letter Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022 to open a committee meeting concerning results of a survey about changing the start and end times of school.

In Kemp’s case, the letter brought up the need for before-school care that would still necessitate an early rise by her children because of her job.

“We can accomplish this same goal by educating families on the importance of sleep and empowering them to make those decisions in their household without moving to a later start time,” the letter said in conclusion.

Kemp wasn’t alone: 823 respondents said a later start time would have a negative impact on child care arrangements.

Ryan Miller, a vice president and chief people officer at KSB, talks about the survey results from community members about the exploration of start and end times at Dixon’s schools.

Ryan Miller, vice president and chief people officer at KSB Hospital, presented the summary of the survey’s qualitative feedback, which emphasized that change was a central concern of all respondents, whether they be conflicts with work schedules, the need for better sleep schedules, before- and after-school care requirements, athletes losing class time and even gains offset by better bus pickup schedules.

He said this had to be weighed within the context of fatigue felt by everyone over the host of changes that have been required by COVID-19.

Kathleen Schaefer, member of the Community Engagement Committee for the Dixon School Board, speaks Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022 during a meeting concerning results of a recent survey.

Committee member Kathleen Schaefer said anxiety over child care services, as referenced in Kemp’s letter, was understandable. Schaefer prefaced her comments by mentioning her own background in early childhood education, then explained how child care services are stretched thin by the pandemic. She also talked about how parental scheduling can be thrown for a loop by as little as a 10-minute change in arrangements.

“There is a great amount of fragility in people’s lives right now,” she said.

Miriam Sohail, Dixon High School senior, speaks during the Tuesday afternoon meeting. Sohail was one of two students on the Community Engagement Committee.

Mariam Sohail, a high school senior, addressed the uncertainty expressed by respondents. “These are things we don’t know how to measure right now,” she said, adding it has contributed to “the feeling of being lost.”

Sohail also referenced Dixon High School Principal Mike Grady, who serves on the survey subcommittee, and a presentation he made at an earlier meeting about how people are tired of changes, especially those brought on by COVID-19.

“We have to make these problems more manageable,” Sohail said.

Jon Wadsworth, a board of education member who also served on the survey subcommittee, said the survey illustrated for him how important child care is to working families.

He said he would be curious to see what a secondary survey would reveal if taken 12 months from now, hopefully with some distance from COVID-19. The data linking additional sleep to student academic performance remains compelling, he said.

Miller said the committee needs to provide answers to questions about child care and activities in a future survey. “Then you might see a different distribution of results,” he said.

The committee also discussed the need for transparency, both in its presentation to the full board but also to the community. Plans to share the survey results on social media and on the district’s website were discussed.

It also wanted to demonstrate how it valued the information gained from the survey. Above all, it was felt the committee needed to express its gratitude to community members for taking the survey, to assure them that it was time well spent, regardless of the outcome.

There were 2,087 survey respondents. There were some overlaps by category, but respondents identified themselves as students (936), parents (891), teachers (320), community members (228), extended family members (134) and business persons (60).

Committee member Sarah Purlee follows along during the meeting Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022 in Dixon.
Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.