A shortened school day for Danville Area School District students aims to improve student mental health and access to support services.

The school board unanimously voted Wednesday to shorten the school day by 45 minutes starting next fall, reducing students' curriculum load by one period per day.

It has not yet been determined whether the change will impact core or elective credit, Danville High School Principal Jeremy Winn said.

The credit requirement for ninth through 12th grade students will be reduced from 27 to 24 credits.

"There was less opportunity for a student to graduate with the previous 27 credit graduation requirement," Principal Winn said.

Instead of 7:30 a.m., the school day will begin at 8 a.m. or 8:15 a.m. for the 2020-2021 school year. The middle and high schools share some transportation and their schedules need to be ironed out before a firm start time can be determined, Principal Winn said.

The changes to the school day will allow teachers to arrive 30 minutes before students and stay 15 minutes after they leave.

"Right now teachers are teaching from first to last bell with no time to talk about kids or to get together across curriculums," Principal Winn said. "The 30 minutes at the beginning of the day will give us time to talk about those at-risk kids and meet with kids who are struggling academically."

The changes will also ensure that students aren't arriving at the building before teachers do.

In part, the changes to the school day and curriculum arose in the aftermath of one middle school student's suicide on Nov. 29, 2019.

Ten high school students were hospitalized for suicidal ideations or attempted suicide this year, Principal Winn said. Approximately seven middle school students were hospitalized this year for similar reasons.

A student mental health survey by administrators also provided some impetus for these changes. 

"There was an overwhelming response by students talking about stress, anxiety, depression, mental health or attempted suicides," Principal Winn said. 

About 35% of students revealed they struggled with these issues, which Principal Winn said is close to the national average.

At-risk students are often identified by teachers or guidance counselors. Their parents are notified and the student is then funneled toward emotional support resources. 

Administrators, nurses and counselors from the Danville Area School District  have been meeting with Geisinger physicians, pediatricians and psychologists to share resources and talk about ways to embed social-emotional learning into the curriculum, Principal Winn said.

The school board also approved a new position at Wednesday's meeting: Mike Brennan was hired as a personalized learning teacher. 

"We've noticed such an increase in the number of students who had hospitalizations or needed more support. We are excited about the addition of a personalized learning teacher," Principal Winn said.

Traditionally, if a student attempted suicide, they would return to the classroom upon their release from the hospital without additional support. The personalized learning teacher will help support those students, Principal Winn said.

At-risk students also meet daily in group settings with guidance counselors and intervention specialists.

"We want to make sure we can continue to be a successful academic school but also have a healthy balance and move forward," Principal Winn said.