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Research says that a later school start time positively impacts alertness, mental health, wellness and behavior in high school and middle school students, which means students are better prepared to learn.
Some area school districts have already implemented later start times. Others, including the Jefferson County and Douglas County districts, are exploring the possibility of making the move.
The most recent district to commit to the switch is Littleton Public Schools, whose board of education voted Dec. 14 for later school start times for middle and high school students beginning with the 2018-19 school year.
The decision to change school start times followed months of research analysis, parent presentations and extensive opportunities for parent, student and staff input through public forums, open houses and surveys.
“If we truly rely on what we believe is compelling scientific research, the question is: Why wouldn’t we do it?” said Brian Ewert, superintendent of Littleton Public Schools. “The research is pretty clear about how much sleep adolescents should get, and more important is when they sleep.”
According to Dr. Lisa Meltzer, National Jewish Health adolescent sleep expert, melatonin is a hormone released by the brain that controls the internal clock and prepares the body for sleeping. But during puberty, the timing of the melatonin release is delayed by up to two hours. This makes it nearly impossible for teens to fall asleep early.
This shift is also seen in the morning hours, showing that when a teen wakes at 6 a.m. that is equivalent of an adult waking at 4 a.m. An adolescent’s brain is biologically asleep at that time.
A 2014 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools delay start of classes to 8:30 a.m. or later.
“Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty,” the report reads.
A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less sleep than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on a school night.
“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily flexible — public health issues in the U.S. today,” wrote pediatrician Judith Owens, in a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
A 2013 study by the Hanover Research Institute also found that “school districts could increase student safety and boost adolescent academic success by instituting later start times for middle and high school students.”
“It was courageous because it does create hardships,” Ewert said of the Littleton board’s decision. “But I absolutely believe it was the right decision to make and I applaud the board for putting into perspective why we’re doing this.”
While Ewert said the shift will create some challenges, such as additional childcare needed for some elementary students, changes to the athletics schedule and reorganization of the transportation schedule, he thinks these obstacles should not get in the way of “doing the right thing for our adolescents.”
“This one absolutely is in the best interest of our kids,” Ewert said. “It wasn’t about adults, it was about kids.”
Ewert was involved in shifting the school start times when he was the superintendent of Englewood Public Schools.
Although the shift in Englewood five years ago was less about the research and more about being able to share staff between schools when the new Englewood High campus was built, Ewert said after the first year they saw a positive impact on behavior, an increase in attendance and a decrease in tardiness.
“I just think kids are more awake and ready to engage in learning,” said Wendy Rubin, superintendent of Englewood Public Schools. “I think that the research is irrefutable — teenagers need more rest … it impacts brain development, social and emotional health and academics.”
Cherry Creek School District implemented later start times for their middle and high school students this school year. While Deputy Superintendent Scott Siegfried said half a year is too early to track performance, the district is participating in a study with National Jewish Health to track changes in their students.
Siegfried said his district has seen better first-hour attendance and fewer behavioral problems.
“This is truly a game-changer for kids and I would encourage anyone to pay some serious attention to it,” Siegfried said.
Pondering the shift
Jefferson County Public Schools, Douglas County School District and Westminster Public Schools are all in the process of exploring later school start times for secondary students for future academic years.
Westminster is in the early stages with what James Duffy, chief operating officer, referred to as creating draft proposals, policy discussions, internal vetting.
Jeffco is a little further along as the district will be hosting a meeting in mid-February to put a community task force together to examine the issue.
While Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass said the brain science concerning sleep patterns for teenagers sparked this discussion, transportation issues offer challenges for a large district like Jeffco.
“There is a significant impact on transportation in the district,” Glass said, adding that traffic patterns and buses that run to multiple schools will need to be taken into account when working on a possible shift.
“We time out to the minute how long we want buses to run,” Glass explained. “When you change something, it can have a cascading effect. It’s one of those things that we’ll have to look at.”
Glass hopes the district can have a thoughtful discussion about the pros and cons of the issue.
The final decision would be made by the school board.
The research and changes that other districts have made also got Douglas County’s Board of Education to look at making a change. Staff is currently re-examining research and surveying stakeholders.
Both the Douglas and Jeffco districts are not looking to make the possible change until the 2019-20 school year.
“We want to go slowly, learn from our other districts before we jump in,” Ray said.
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