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When Practical Makes Things Possible

BY MERRI ROSENBERG

When the superintendent in Wilton, Conn., wanted to explore whether his school district could switch the start time for the high school about a dozen years ago, he turned to the community’s League of Women Voters to undertake a feasibility survey.

As a nonpartisan organization, the League of Women Voters gathers comprehensive details on all sides of an issue. In this case, explains Lisa Bogan, the Connecticut group’s school start time specialist, “The whole study looked at all possible permutations and creative solutions to various issues that came up during the process.”

To explore the case for change, the study outlined the scientific and medical research about the detrimental impact of sleep deprivation on teenagers, and included information about the benefits of a later start time for adolescents. (Find the league’s sleep study at http://www.wiltonlwv.org/images/stories/Misc​PDFs/study-schoolstartjune2002.pdf.)

A Hurdle Cleared

Wilton educators and parents faced several key considerations, which are familiar concerns in any district undertaking a later start for high schoolers. The superintendent at the time made clear that any change would have to be budget neutral, transportation logistics would have to work efficiently and athletics personnel would need to be on board.

Apparently, the clincher in Wilton came with the athletic director’s acquiescence. Says Bogan, “He saw students in his gym classes (in early morning) were really tired.”

Because Wilton sits in the middle of its athletic conference, meaning students don’t have to travel long distances to compete against other schools, teachers are willing to accommodate slightly early departures for athletes, says Wilton High School Principal Robert O’Donnell.

Limited Modifications

Small tweaks in existing operations made the schedule change feasible. It wasn’t safe to have two buses in the drop-off lane, so the district developed a loop, with half going to the middle school and half of the buses to the high school. When that created a problem at a stoplight near campus, the town changed the timing of the light, added an advance arrow and put an officer at the intersection.

Instead of providing extra help to students after school, teachers agreed to be available before first period. The shift in school hours does mean faculty meetings start later in the day. “We’re a very student-centered school district,” says O’Donnell.

The district switched the high school start time from 7:35 to 8:15 a.m. for the 2003-04 academic year. After complaints from elementary school parents, the district changed the high school start time to 8:20 a.m.

To allay parents’ concerns about who would look after their younger children when the older students had a later start and end time, the district decided that in any emergency dismissal, the middle and high school students would be sent home first.

Extra Sleep

The community responded to the message “talking about the greater good,” Bogan says. “Not every student plays sports every day. Not every student needs extra help every day. It’s a shift of inconvenience.”

And it turned out that there were unanticipated benefits.

Many of the teachers said the students were more alert and less tired in first period classes,” O’Donnell says. “We did our own survey and found that students were getting more sleep and accumulating less sleep debt.” That translated into 35 minutes more sleep each night, totaling more than 2.3 hours per week.

It seems to work,” he says. “It’s part of the fabric of what we do. Students feel they’re rested. Their peers in neighboring districts are a little jealous, and it’s worked pretty well. There’s no movement to change it.” 

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