Academic journal article Education Next

How to Make School Start Later: Early-Morning High School Clashes with Teenage Biology, but Change Is Hard

Academic journal article Education Next

How to Make School Start Later: Early-Morning High School Clashes with Teenage Biology, but Change Is Hard

Article excerpt

THE NAME OF THE STUDY said it all: "Sleepmore in Seattle: Later School Start times Are Associated with More Sleep and Better Performance in High School Students." In 2016-17, Seattle Public Schools pushed back high-school start times by 55 minutes, from 7:50 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. And just like that, students slept an average of 34 more minutes per night and their grades went up 4.5 percent, researchers found.

It was yet another entry in a long bibliography of studies showing the benefits of a later start time for teenagers (including "Rise and Shine" by Jennifer Heissel and Samuel Norris, in this issue). This growing body of evidence is in line with broad expert consensus that early school days are in conflict with adolescents' biological sleep patterns and need for 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night. In 2017, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine officially recommended that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The American Academy of Pediatrics has been pushing for that same start-time threshold since 2014. And a 2011 study published by the Brookings Institution found that delaying start times by one hour would cost $ 1,950 per student ($150 per year for 13 years), but lead to $17,500 in additional lifetime earnings.

For a change that seems like a no-brainer, however, delaying high school times can be notably tough to pull off. As of fall 2015, only 13 percent of public high schools followed the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In fact, U.S. high schools remained more likely to start before 7:30 a.m. than schools with younger children.

The crux of the matter is that schools are a collection of moving parts, from predawn janitorial and food-service prep to busing and afterschool activities. Family work routines are often organized around school rhythms. Shifting secondary-school start times sends shock waves through those systems.

"Schools are a huge part of a family's life," said Deb Putnam, Boston coordinator for Start School Later, a nonprofit advocacy group. "They drive so much."

Boston Public Schools offers a cautionary tale for changing start times. After the district announced a plan in 2017 to start most high schools later and elementary schools earlier, furious parents packed school committee meetings. Members of the city council and local civil-rights leaders declared that the new schedules would imperil lower-income families' job security. The school superintendent, Tommy Chang, eventually rescinded the decision. The turmoil was widely considered to be a factor in Chang's early departure from the job six months later.

Nonetheless, districts continue to make and stick with similar schedule changes. How can communities prepare for the shift, and what have districts done to ensure new start times are put in place as smoothly as possible?

I took a close look at practices in three school districts to find out. They are: Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, a diverse urban district of 38,000 students who speak 125 languages at home; Kanawha County Schools in West Virginia, which serves 26,000 students in the capital city of Charleston and surrounding rural communities covering 913 square miles; and Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana, which enrolls 29,000 students. Two of these districts--Kanawha County and Fort Wayne Community Schools--have already pushed back high-school start times. Saint Paul is in the homestretch of a years-long effort to do so. Here is what I learned.

1. Expect an uproar.

Because of the cost of transportation, many districts stagger school start times so their fleets of buses can make multiple runs, called "tiered" scheduling: elementary schools at one time, middle schools at another, and high schools at a third. Typically, when administrators plan to move high-school start times later, they opt to flip busing schedules with elementary schools, giving young students earlier start times. …

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