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Poll: Should West County High Schools Have a Later Start Time?

Studies show that teens – who have a later sleep cycle than children or adults – fare better on many measures when high school starts later in the morning, says local social worker Susanna Marshland. Marshland wrote the letter (below) to the West Contra C

In the current environment which focuses on improving measurable outcomes for all our schools, there is one simple, cost-effective change that could make a big difference.

The change?  Shift the morning start time for our high schools to 8:30 or later.
There is very clear research indicating that delaying the morning start time for high schools has a major impact not just on improving grades and test scores, but also on improving physical and mental health students and decreasing teen driving accidents.

Medical research is clear that teens experience a "sleep phase shift" during adolescence that means they are alert later into the night than children and adults. The average teen needs 9.25 hours of sleep a night.  When they don't even get drowsy till after 11 and have to arise for an 8 a.m. school start, they are bound to experience the negative consequences of sleep deprivation –  fatigue, irritability, mood swings, depression, and even obesity.  And it shows up at school, in tardiness, truancy, disciplinary issues, mental health problems, and high-risk behaviors.  For more information, see http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/school-start-time-and-sleep.

Conversely, there are several controlled, peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate improved academic functioning in schools that delayed their start times; the most notable are the U.S. Air Force Academy study and in Minnesota.  
With later start times, there are dramatic improvements in attendance, continuous enrollment, behavior, alertness, and learning.  Increased sleep also benefits athletic performance, mental health, and health.
Some excerpted findings from the research:

  • A four-year study of more than 6,100 first-semester United States Air Force Academy freshman published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, found a one-hour delay in the first class increased grades by 0.15 standard deviations.
  • In 1999, school districts in Lexington, Kentucky, delayed start times for high school students county-wide by one hour to 8:30 a.m. Average crash rates for teen drivers in the study county in the two years after the change in school start time dropped 16.5%, compared with the two years prior to the change, whereas teen crash rates for the rest of the state increased 7.8% over the same time period.
  • A study published in the September 2010 issue of the journal Sleep found that teenagers who slept less than eight hours per weeknight ate more fatty foods and snacks than adolescents who slept eight hours or more.
  • A 2011 CDC study of 12,154 high school students also found an association between diminished sleep and increased likelihood of health-risk behaviors, including use of cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana, sexual activity, and serious consideration of attempting suicide. 

For an excellent layperson's overview of this issue, I recommend the relevant chapter of Bronson and Merryman's 2009 book, Nurture Shock: The New Thinking About Children, pp. 29-44.  For links to much of the research and to information about other schools and districts who have shifted to later times with positive effects, and a description of the obstacles to overcome, see “The Impact of School Start Times on Adolescent Health and Academic Performance.”

I hope our school board will seriously consider making this change to create school schedules that are centered around the developmental needs of teens, rather than the schedules of adults.  It would improve outcomes not just for individuals but also for the entire district.

Susanna Marshland, LCSW, is a social worker who witnesses first-hand the effects of sleep deprivation in teens. This column is a modified version of a letter she sent to board of the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. February 14, 2012 at 09:26 PM
It would be great if local school boards would make this change - the evidence is clear that it's best for teens - but politics, money, and myth usually interfere, even when school boards have the best intentions. As both a medical writer and mom of 3 (all of whom started high school at 7:17 am!), I eventually realized that it's going to take collective action on a national scale to resolve this problem. That's why I started a petition ( http://bit.ly/tWa4dS) asking for a minimum earliest start time, the idea being that by setting a lowest bottom limit we would make it easier for school boards to prioritize health & learning when they set schedules. For more info on the peititon, and on the grassroots coalition that the petition effort has sparked, please see StartSchoolLater.net. It's too late for my kids, but I'm hoping that by bringing together the many local voices on this issue we might be able to keep from subjecting another generation to these hours.
RJ February 14, 2012 at 09:42 PM
Schools should also be attended all year long..Of course how to pay.
Susan D.Keeffe February 15, 2012 at 12:15 AM
Who takes care of the kids when working parents have to leave at 6 am? Do they just trust their kids will get themselves up and to school on time?
Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. February 15, 2012 at 12:39 AM
Susan, someone always seems to raise this issue, and it confuses me. Where I live, high schools start at 7:17 a.m. (we're not even close to the earliest in the country) and get out at 2:05 p.m., while many elementaries don't start till 9:15. So if there's a childcare problem, we have it right now, whether you're talking about the 1st graders in the morning or the teens who are out of school unsupervised for 4 hours every afternoon. What's most disturbing, though, is that any time people suggest making school start "later," concerns along these lines inevitably arise - no matter WHAT time schools start or what time you're suggesting they move to. However, the power of myth is so strong that it will probably take collective action on a national scale for anything to change, which is why I started the national petition (http://bit.ly/tWa4dS). Change is hard, but the truth is that communities adjust to school schedules, not vice versa. The medical community has been on board since the 1990s, but it's politically impossible for most communities to change. For more on this, see this Time Ideas article: http://ideas.time.com/2011/11/18/why-are-we-depriving-our-teens-of-sleep/
Susan D.Keeffe February 15, 2012 at 12:42 AM
You didn't answer my question. I don't believe asking it is a myth. I don't discount the research. But how do you solve this problem?
Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. February 15, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Sorry, Susan, I thought I was clear but apparently not. If both parents have to leave at 6 am, they have a problem right now with their elementary school kids. The solution is usually before-school care, or daycare, right? If we started all mandatory instruction after 8 am, and, we hope, high schools after 8:30, the same solution would still work for the younger children who can't be left alone. The high school kids (ages 14-18) are presumably capable of getting themselves up and off to school on their own....To me, the bigger problem is why are we setting school hours that give adolescents so much unsupervised time after school?
Kari O February 15, 2012 at 12:57 AM
As I see the issue about childcare, it's an issue with earlier start times too. And if both parents have a M-F, 8 hr/day kind of job, you're going to have some unsupervised time on one end or the other, or have to arrange for some childcare or other activity time, depending on the age of the children involved. If students start really early, then they have several hours after school unsupervised -- not ideal for adolescents. If they start later, say after their parents have to be at work, then they may have to get themselves out the door and to the bus or to school -- not unreasonable for high schoolers. For older kids, this would be my pick.
Kim February 15, 2012 at 02:16 AM
I'm not sure how accurate the research is. I took early period in high school and got good grades in those classes and others. I went to sleep by 10 every night because I was tired. Don't students have the option already of starting at 8:30? I preferred to go early and be by 1 or 2. Maybe a better idea would be flex schedules so early birds can start early and kids that need to sleep in start closer to 9.
Giorgio C. February 15, 2012 at 04:25 AM
Something to consider: 1. More often, both parents are working 2. Bus services are being cut-eliminated 3. Jobs are becoming less flexible, more demanding Our education system has to accommodate the entire family unit, not just the child.
Giorgio C. February 15, 2012 at 04:45 AM
Hi Terra, Do you live in this area? I see that you have been posting far and wide (nationally?) on this issue. I ask because I was wondering how familiar you are with our district, the population served, etc. Have you been providing consultation to our district staff? Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this subject.
Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. February 15, 2012 at 05:18 AM
Hi, G.C. Wasn't able to respond to your direct question to me above, so I'm doing so here. And, no, I don't live in the area, although some people in our coalition do. This is a national issue, as you probably know, and every local school system has to figure out its own way to address it depending on a huge number of variables (e.g., demographics, topography, budget, etc.). That being said there really is no legitimate reason for any school to mandate instruction before 8 am, nor any reason that a school system shouldn't be able to make that happen if it prioritizes health & learning (8 am is hardly radical). That's all the petition (http://bit.ly/tWa4dS) is asking. It's important to set this basic limit as a matter of public health and safety, though, because without it there seems to be no end to how early schools will go - and, as Ms. Marshland argues so well, the result is seriously underming the health, safety, and learning of our children. There's even some evidence that starting high schools before about 8:30 is counterproductive economically, interestingly enough (see, for example, this recent Brookings report: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/papers/2011/09_organize_jacob_rockoff/092011_organize_jacob_rockoff_paper.pdf )
Giorgio C. February 15, 2012 at 05:31 AM
Thank you for sharing, Terra.
Susan D.Keeffe February 15, 2012 at 07:11 AM
Terra, our schools all start at around 8
Susan D.Keeffe February 15, 2012 at 07:17 AM
It looks like my comment was cut off. Our schools all start around 8:15 am. There are more after school than before school programs. Our diverse population includes families who cannot afford day care and who have transportation issues. In some areas truancy is an issue. To assume teens can safely get themselves to school independently is a false assumption. I agree teens need a lot more sleep. But one size dies not fit all.
Terra Ziporyn Snider, Ph.D. February 15, 2012 at 11:57 AM
Susan, I couldn't agree ore than one size does not fit all, except the "size" that no one should be required to be in a classroom in the 7 o'clock hour (which has sadly become the norm in many if not most American high schools)! I realize that your schools start later than most today. Even so, the body of evidence suggests starting a little later would be beneficial (with truancy, too, by the way). Many of the negative effects associated with starting high school before 8:30 disproportionately impact disadvantaged children, so this may be something worth considering. It's also worth considering that schools change hours all the time, often without notice,and, historically, often without due consideration of the impact of school start time on health, safety, learning, or equity. This is why it's important for everyone involved in these decisions to start recognizing the importance of a safe, healthy school start time that lets all kids learn effectively. It's also why this is a great dialogue, so thank you!
Giorgio C. February 15, 2012 at 12:35 PM
Kari, You are commenting from the city of Annapolis, yes? I'm not sure if the logistics mirror ours in terms of possible commute distance, lack of bussing, etc.
Susan D.Keeffe February 15, 2012 at 03:22 PM
Terra, As you know, education is a state responsibility and states differ widely. Your observations don't match our local reality. Our school board does not willy nillly change hours. The times have been set for years. We even had Year Round schools for awhile. You are making global statements but you have no idea what we have in our district. Yes, teens need more sleep. But for families in survival mode telling them to change to 9:30 in communities where it is not safe for kids to walk to school is a problem. We do not have school buses except for special education students. Local bus service so-so Why don't you come and make a study of our local needs and then make your recommendations? That would be more helpful
Susan D.Keeffe February 15, 2012 at 05:40 PM
One further thought. If the research is correct, this is a biological imperative affecting all teens everywhere. So, how does this jibe with history where kids have been getting up early to help their families in the fields? How would the suggestion of starting school at 9:30 in another country, say China, for instance,resonate ? How about eliminating all media from a child's room including TV, phones, iPads, computers etc at bed time so the kids might actually sleep?
Giorgio C. February 16, 2012 at 03:09 AM
Yes, I think it would be great if Terra visited California and studied our situation here!
Aazoba Yuzuki February 16, 2012 at 04:17 AM
8:30 start time LOL, sleep early and you don't need to change school time ... this comes down to parenting and disciplining/training kids to sleep at the right time during school days. America is getting FAT and LAZY! well been for a while now
Giorgio C. February 16, 2012 at 12:02 PM
So the author (social worker) of the letter is from Berkeley? And this is part of a national campaign by a coalition with commenters as far away as Maryland? Is there anyone who resides in West County who is part of this coalition?
JoJo February 16, 2012 at 06:08 PM
I went to John Swett High School and at the time we started at 7:50 AM. Of course I never wanted to wake up early, but we got out at 2:05 and when I got caught up with units, I got at 1:05. I do wish I had more activities but it didn't effect me. I think that school should end early than start later.

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