Feature: Clearing the Snooze Hurdles

What three districts did to create later school start times to address teenagers' sleep patterns

BY MERRI ROSENBERG

Anyone who’s ever tried to rouse a high school student from bed to catch that 6:55 a.m. bus to arrive at school on time knows how tenaciously that teen will cling to the bedcovers. Pity the teacher who has to instill complicated algebraic concepts at 7:30 in the morning or discuss the subtler points of the American Revolution during that groggy first-period class.

For the past couple of decades, research by Kyla Wahlstrom at the University of Minnesota (see related story, page 16) and others, demonstrated strongly that teenagers’ biological clocks simply don’t mesh with the conventional middle and high school bell schedule.

Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the issue. In a recent policy statement, published in late August, the organization asserted that school start times for adolescents should begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to align more closely their need for sleep and biological rhythms with successful school performance. According to that paper, about 1,000 high schools, out of more than 18,000 nationwide, have altered their start time.

Tough Obstacles

In October 2014, the Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools, which educates nearly 187,000 students, approved a later start time for its 27 high schools and already has allocated 20 new buses to make the transition work. The change, taking effect in 2015-16, is projected to cost close to $5 million.

They hope to see similar outcomes to those being realized in Decatur, Ga., which exercised its flexibility as a state-authorized charter district. Two years ago, Decatur moved its high school start an hour later, to 8:30 a.m., with middle schools starting at 8:45 a.m. Lauri McKain, who was high school principal at the time, noted the number of tardy students dropped, more eligible students took advantage of the breakfast program and more students could be accommodated for tutoring before and after classes.

Yet many districts find the logistical bugaboos relating to student transportation and budgetary constraints too hard to overcome. There also are the complications in interscholastic athletics schedules and parents who want their high schoolers home early to look after younger siblings. Good intentions fail in the face of obstacles like these.

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Even so, some districts have figured out how to make skillful adaptations, strategic negotiations and compromises, and to deliver the right message and get the needed buy-in from staff, students and communities.

Stories follow of three school districts in urban, suburban and rural communities that have made a successful switch to later start times for secondary school students.

o o o

Edina, Minn., on the outskirts of Minneapolis, was the first district in the nation to embrace a later start time for high school students 19 years ago.

“We did it based on good research,” says Kenneth Dragseth, the district’s superintendent between 1992 and 2006. “This came up, and we thought if we believe this research, we should try to make a change.”

The middle school’s opening bell moved to 7:50 a.m. from 7:45 a.m., a very minor switch, but it allowed the high school to push its start time to 8:30. The operating hours remain the same today.

The process in Edina was methodical and comprehensive. The district studied the issue for about six months, with a committee looking at everything from transportation and sports to the impact on local employers. (Many students worked at local businesses starting at 4 p.m., and district leaders recognized they had to address those concerns.) It helped, Dragseth says, that the change was “a cost-neutral process, not an additional cost.”

To deal with the inconvenience around after-school athletics, Dragseth met with all the superintendents in the local athletic conference. Even though some were definitely angry about the switch and there was some pushback from varsity coaches in Edina, Dragseth says educators made adjustments to allow students with out-of-town competitions to leave early.

Even parents who had planned on their older children babysitting younger children after school adjusted and “were glad the older kids were there for the younger ones in the morning,” Dragseth says. “The kids were on board right away.”

As Bruce Locklear, the principal at Edina High School, says, “It’s recognized that a well-rested student is a more effective learner. The late start is part of the tradition of Edina, it’s a major part of our culture. They understand the importance of rest.”

Even more significant, he adds, is that “this was not driven by whether or not the [athletic] conference is aligned. It was done because it’s the best thing for students. The core has always been academic and student performance, and figuring out how to make it work. People enjoy the mornings.”

Looking at time in a more flexible way, the district offers a program called “collaborative Wednesdays,” a block of 118 minutes in the middle of that day when students can meet with teachers, work in small groups on projects or catch up on reading.

Given Minnesota winters, another benefit of the later start time is that it provides “more opportunities for the snowplows to get to work,” Locklear says.

And by now, says Dragseth, who still lives in the area, “nobody knows anything different.”

o o o

 Rosenberg Feature
Testimony from student Jilly Dos Santos influenced the Columbia, Mo., school board and Superintendent Peter Stiepleman to adjust official school hours beginning in fall 2013.
In Columbia, Mo., the reality of a new high school coming on line in this 18,000-student district prompted the discussion in 2012-13 about moving back the start time.

As the fourth largest district in the state, encompassing urban, suburban and rural communities within its borders, Columbia operates 220 buses on multiple routes, covering 300 square miles.

The exploratory committee included the school board president, deputy superintendent of transportation, principals, teachers and parents. By May 2013, the board approved the plan, and when students attended the first day of their new school that fall, the opening bell rang at 8:50 a.m.

The district was diligent about its communication and outreach efforts, according to superintendent Peter Stiepleman, who served as assistant superintendent during the approval process. To assuage parent concerns about earlier pickup times for the younger children, especially on the outlying country roads, the administration asked the elementary school principals to call affected families to solicit their feedback.

“We readjusted the timelines, trying for 6:45 as a pickup,” Stiepleman says. The reality is “somebody has to get up early.” Logistical factors forced some elementary school pick ups to move to 6:30 a.m.

There was constant communication about the proposed change, from calling individual families to board presentations. That even included memorable testimony from student Jilly Dos Santos, who brought her case to the board about a later start to her high school day. As Stiepleman tells it, “Jilly was prepared, she took it seriously and delivered a message, ‘Let me tell you what kids are saying.’ She had really thought about it, and her role was important.”

Now, almost 1½ years into the schedule changes, “the pushback was not as robust as we thought,” the superintendent says.

Stiepleman is cautious about overstating long-term benefits, though he reports attendance increases at the high school and elementary school levels. “If you increase attendance, you increase achievement,” Stiepleman says. The rate was 85 percent in 2012-13 and 90 percent last year among all demographics.

One unanticipated benefit was the ability to transport students from elementary schools to a special district half-day program for students with behavioral issues, at no additional cost to the district, reducing the need for a budget cut.

With elementary schools now starting at 7:50 a.m. instead of 8:50, the schools added clubs at the end of the day so students could stay later.

“It’s still a challenge for sports,” says Stiepleman, referring to the interscholastic conference that includes Columbia. “Other districts are not on the same time. We put wireless on the buses so kids could do their homework and do class work, even if they have to leave early.”

o o o

In Jackson, Wyo., the school system first explored the issue of school hours in 2006-07, but encountered “strong resistance to change” and shelved the consideration temporarily, Teton County School District Superintendent Pamela Shea says.

 Rosenberg Feature 2
Superintendent Pamela Shea greets students in Jackson, Wyo., where the opening high school bell now rings at 8:55 a.m.

However, as concerns mounted over student tardiness owing to a high school start time of 7:30 a.m. and parents complained about the difficulty of getting their teens off to school, the district took up the issue anew.

“With accountability, that was a trigger to look at this again,” says Shea, citing concerns about academic performance.

The district identified the usual barriers and raised questions about after-school programs and day care centers before attempting any schedule adjustments.

“We have learned that when you enact change, you need to have a powerful ‘why’ first,” she says. “It has to be very purposeful and address a need. You have to engage communities. People want to know and be involved.”

The district confronted several issues that were particular to its location and community makeup. When school started at 7:25 a.m., “it was hard for staff to get [such early] day care,” Shea says. “Now we have all staff starting at the same time.” Similarly, some parents objected to the impact of a later school start on family dinnertime.

With significant student involvement in club and school athletic participation, the district faced another challenge. “Where we really had to problem solve was with swimming and the use of facilities,” Shea says. “We had to sit down with the stakeholders and discuss the possibility of changing the schedule.”

Even skiing had to be considered. “It gets dark early, around 4-4:30, and we had to ensure that our Nordic skiers had enough daylight for their practice,” she adds.

It cost the Jackson district about $250,000 to launch the schedule change initially, mostly to add buses and drivers and to revamp bus routes. The opening high school bell now rings at 8:55 a.m., one of the later start times among high schools that have shifted operating hours. (One Florida high school starts at 9:25 a.m.) That decision was based, Shea says, on concerns relating to “how early do we want kindergarteners on the bus?”

The district has begun to see positive changes during the past two years, with 220 fewer tardy students in the morning.

“People had expressed fear that kids would just stay up later, but predominantly that didn’t happen,” says Shea, pointing as well to benefits to the physical and mental health of students. Fewer car accidents involve local teens — according to a local follow-up study, which calculated a 70 percent reduction.

“We’ve made a commitment for three years,” Shea adds. During the fall semester, the district planned to examine how the changes have worked and will “start community dialogue” to assess what scheduling adjustments or tweaks are needed.

Merri Rosenberg is a freelance education writer in Ardsley, N.Y. E-mail: merri.rosenberg@gmail.com

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