Feature

For Whom the School Bell Tolls

Schools modify their start times based on the latest research on adolescent sleep needs by MILLICENT LAWTON


The notion of changing the time that school starts in the morning so inflamed parents and community members in the Fayette County, Ky., public schools last year that in the space of three months the school board voted three separate times--reversing itself twice--before it made up its mind.

What the board finally settled on was to ring first bells one hour later for high school and middle school students and to have elementary students start their day up to 90 minutes earlier. As unexpected as the firestorm of controversy, perhaps, was one of the chief reasons the board made the change: cutting-edge research showing teen-agers need to get more sleep than they do now.

The fact that the altered schedule, which took effect last fall, was subject to controversy among parents and others illustrates how much of a debate school district officials can kick up when they consider altering the very structure of the day shared by schools and families. The contentiousness can turn school board or task force meetings into shouting matches. It even prompted one group opposing Fayette's proposed bell change to take out a newspaper ad picturing a school bus about to run over a young child whose new schedule had him waiting in pre-dawn darkness.

But a shift to later start times for teen-age students is an issue that a small but growing number of school systems are choosing to confront, motivated in large measure by sleep research. Districts from Virginia to Alaska have made or have contemplated a change to the hour at which they ask students to appear for school.

Just last November, the school board in Montgomery County, Md., a 127,000-student district in suburban Washington, D.C., unanimously endorsed the superintendent's recommendation to solicit volunteer schools to pilot test a split high school schedule that would allow some students to start school at 7:25 a.m., as they do now, and others to begin an hour and 50 minutes later, at 9:15 a.m.

Sleep-Deprived Teens
The sight of groggy teens ignoring their alarm clocks or staggering, coffee in hand, into school only to catnap on the desktops is a familiar, if vexing, one to parents and teachers alike. Now, scientists are offering clinical explanations for why America's adolescents seem sleep-deprived.

Researchers have found that, contrary to popular belief, adolescents need more sleep, not less, than children and adults. That means about nine hours, ideally, for adolescents, or about eight at a minimum--a tall order for students who may have after-school jobs or hours of homework at night. And puberty makes it doubly hard to get that kind of shut-eye, ushering in a change to sleep patterns that prompts teen-agers to fall asleep late and rise late.

Given the data that shows many teens only go to sleep after 10 or 11 p.m., they shouldn't awaken before about 7:30 a.m.--about the time many schools expect them to be sitting in their first-period class. If sleep researchers--and many teen-agers--had their druthers, school would start closer to 9 a.m.

Sleep deficits often are overlooked or dismissed as inconsequential. But a lack of sleep can impair students' mood, memory and ability to pay attention and put them at risk for nodding off behind the wheel of a car, the researchers point out. Some studies have noted that students getting less sleep also obtain worse grades, but hard data on how much student achievement improves if start times are moved later is not yet available.

Pioneer Schools
Many school districts are finding the research persuasive enough, though, to risk the wrath of parents, teachers and community members by considering a start-time change. But those districts soon discover that any planned adjustment of school start times can become entangled in issues such as bus transportation, interscholastic athletics, student jobs, before- and after-school child care and even juvenile crime.

The epicenter of the shakeup around school bell times seems to be Minnesota. In 1994, the Minnesota Medical Association sent a letter to all of the state's local superintendents urging that their districts eliminate early school starting hours in recognition of adolescents' biological need to sleep longer and later. Then, in 1997, the state legislature considered, but did not ultimately approve, a bill that would have prohibited high schools and junior highs from starting before 8 a.m.

To date, the sleep research has influenced at least five Gopher State districts to change their start times, and others are considering doing so. The first to make such a change was the 6,800-student Edina, Minn., district, which shifted its high school start time an hour later in the 1996-97 school year. The district has seen a decline in tardiness and absenteeism as a result. At the end of this school year, Edina officials should have enough information to determine how the changes have affected student achievement.

Multiple Start Times
Nationwide, the largest district to alter its start times based at least in part on the sleep research is Minneapolis. There was also concern from law enforcement that students in the 50,000-student district had too much time on their hands in which to get into trouble after their 1:50 p.m. dismissal.

School officials also hoped pushing middle and high school start times later would help attendance. There were plenty of anecdotes about middle and high school students who would miss the bus and wander into school at 9:30 a.m. "They felt if school started later, it would cut down on that," board member Judy Farmer says of educators' concerns.

So beginning in the 1997-98 school year, Minneapolis pushed the high school start an hour and 25 minutes later--from a school day of 7:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. to one beginning at 8:40 a.m. and ending at 3:10 p.m. The middle schoolers snagged an extra two hours and 25 minutes of sleep before their 9:40 a.m. start. The elementary schools, which started at 9:40 a.m. prior to the change, now start at any one of three times: 7:45, 8:40 or 9:40 a.m.

The district needs three tiers of start times, Farmer says, because it permits each school bus to make three round trips. "If we only had two tiers, we'd need a lot more school buses," she says. In Minneapolis, as in other districts, transportation issues are critical factors in start time changes. The district buses 90 percent of its students.

Many parents seem to accept the new schedule, but middle school parents--and the parents of elementary students who have that start time--have made it clear that 9:40 a.m. is too late to be starting school, Farmer says. The 4:10 p.m. dismissal time has also played havoc with after-school activities for middle schoolers. "By then," she says, "it's pretty late to squeeze stuff in before dinner."

Overall, interscholastic sports haven't presented a problem, because city schools all play each other in one league. But school sports teams that use city parks for practices ran into scheduling conflicts with after-school recreation programs for younger students.

However, positive reports are heard too. "The kids themselves and their teachers in high school and middle schools say kids are much more alert," says Farmer. "Mentally, they're there."

Some preliminary data that the district has on attendance, Farmer says, indicate like the start time change may have helped high school attendance a bit but was an even more significant help in middle schools--even given that students may be unsupervised as they prepare to catch the bus. But, Farmer notes, it can be hard to tease the bell time change apart from the district's big push, started in 1998, to increase middle school attendance.

Boosting Attendance
Attendance in his Fayette County, Ky., school district had concerned Superintendent Peter F. Flynn. One reason he wanted to see school start later this past fall was that in the 1997-98 school year, the district had a bell schedule that was even earlier than it had been in the past. With the early schedule, attendance had dropped off among the secondary students. Even a 1 percent decrease among the district's 32,500 students had meant a loss of about $400,000 in state aid, which is based on average daily attendance.

Now, following intense lobbying by some parents and sleep researchers, school is starting for high schoolers at 8:30 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m. and for middle schoolers at 9 a.m. instead of at 8 a.m. Middle school attendance has stayed fairly steady--it wasn't as much of a problem to begin with, Flynn says. But for high school students, the change has had a "dramatic impact," he says.

"We're seeing our attendance is up and our tardiness is down, so we have more kids coming to school every day and more kids coming to school on time." And, perhaps even more importantly, "The kids are more alert," he says. "They're ready to learn."

Even a principal who had not been crazy about the schedule change told Flynn the effect on the students was impressive. "I hate to admit it, but it's better," Flynn recalls the principal saying.

And the students agree. The high school students "like the later start time. They like to sleep in," Flynn says. There are a few students, he says, who prefer to start their day earlier because they have a lot of activities after school.

But whether it’s the early-bird students or the parents who want the school start to match up with their work schedules, Flynn notes, there's no pleasing everyone. "You're not going to be able to accommodate all of the different family patterns we have here."

As for any concern about the high school day running into time for students' after-school jobs, Flynn is not worried. "Frankly, we know what the research is on kids working after school. We don’t want kids working more than 20 hours a week. If this [schedule change] discourages that, that should be a benefit."

Meanwhile, other districts wrestle with the issue.

The Bus Bugaboo
Six months of work by a task force of students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members to change bell times for the Fairfax County, Va., schools ended in the equivalent of a hung jury. After reviewing four options for start times, including retaining the current high school and middle school start of 7:20 a.m., the group could not reach consensus on what to do in the suburban Washington district.

Flipping the high school/middle school start time with that of the elementary school so that the younger children would start at 8 a.m. and secondary students would begin at 9 a.m. was a preferred option. It accommodated both the research on teen-agers' sleep needs and the task force's recognition that the elementary students world learn better on an earlier schedule. However, it was expected to result in a need for 366 new buses and drivers with an estimated cost for the vehicles alone of nearly $31 million.

When it completed its work last June, the task force wrote in its report, "Like the legendary Gordian knot, which could not be untied by conventional means, the task force was unable to identify a way to change bell schedules that would not require other significant changes." Student activities, athletics and student work hours, the report says, "are major considerations that are important to many parents and students and for which the task force has identified no satisfactory solution."

Helen F. Westfall, the administrative officer who acted as the Fairfax district’s staff liaison to the committee, says that even though they reached no resolution, the task force members were persuaded by the sleep research. She says the group felt it needed input from the community--perhaps in the form of a survey--because the ramifications of changing the bell schedule made it "more of a broad-based issue, a life issue as well as a school issue."

A survey would be a helpful way to uncover what the community at large wants, says task force co-chair and Fairfax parent Carol Milewski. She distributed a written survey at her daughters' high school and she says 80 percent to 90 percent of the parents who completed the questionnaire wanted the school start shifted one hour later--even if the timing of after-school activities might be affected.

But without a doubt, both transportation and athletics loomed large over the task force's proceedings, says Milewski. Whether in Fairfax County or American society at large, she says, "It's always been that sports outweigh the academics." The athletic constituency at the district was only inclined to let school run 20 minutes later than it does now, she says, but the task force felt that might not provide enough sleep benefit to the older children to warrant the change in the elementary schedule.

Yet Milewski says the biggest stumbling block was the cost of bus transportation. The estimated $31 million figure to flip secondary school start times with the elementary struck the task force as a "really outlandish figure." If the transportation cost for a change of that kind could be reduced, she says, "We would probably be moving forward with some changes."

Indeed, she says the board plans to work with its transportation department on cost estimates. Neighboring Montgomery County's proposed split schedule, by comparison, would only increase transportation costs by roughly $130,000.

A Mixed Assessment
In Minnesota, researchers are trying to track what effect the start time changes are having on students and how much of a shift is late enough to help get teens the sleep they need. Unfortunately, Kyla Wahlstrom, the associate director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, says good data on whether academic achievement improves must wait until there are three years' worth of data--enough to show a trend.

So far, Wahlstrom's research has turned up mixed reviews among teachers, parents and students for the bell times' shift in Minneapolis. A survey of teachers found that opinion in that group split evenly between those for and against. Those who liked it said students were more alert in class and they themselves felt better prepared to teach and less sleep-deprived. The ones who didn't like it cited students having to leave the last period class of the day to fit in after-school activities. They also said fewer students were coming in for academic help after school--a phenomenon that did not emerge in suburban districts that changed their start times, Wahlstrom says.

Minneapolis students complained they didn't have enough time to shift gears between the time they got out of school and the time they began their after-school jobs, according to Wahlstrom. But many liked the new schedule, saying they felt more alert and awake for the first two hours of school. They also said they liked having time at home in the morning to talk to their parents.

Parents, for their part, had mixed feelings about the impact of the changes on their child- care arrangements, Wahlstrom says. Elementary parents whose students start at 7:40 a.m. were pleased they didn't have to arrange for before-school child care. But educators at those schools that start as late as 9:40 a.m. report the students have been up for three hours watching television. And because teen-agers are getting out of school later than younger children, they are not around to baby-sit in the afternoon.

Since the bell change in Edina, students are getting about an hour more sleep than they did before, and parents and teachers are hailing the difference. Parents say the children are less crabby, moody and depressed.

Wahlstrom's research confirms such anecdotes about mood. Students in the districts similar to Edina but with earlier school start times reported more depressed feelings and risky behaviors.

Taking on such a complicated set of issues related to start times requires careful deliberations, Wahlstrom says. "This is a local decision, so there is not one solution that fits everyone. As a result, the only way a school district is going to have a good local decision is … to sit down with the best information that they can get their hands on and have an open discussion … and think a little bit outside the box."

Millicent Lawton is a free-lance education writer in Wellesley, Mass.