Logistical Thinking Behind Later School Starts
Letting high school students get more sleep has a research base but reality hits when districts consider daily schedule changes
BY ALAN N. WECHSLER/School Administrator, May 2018

Paul Jenkins, superintendent in Glens Falls, N.Y., launched a newsletter titled StartTime to keep parents and staff informed as the district considered later start times for high schoolers to accommodate adolescent sleep patterns.
It seems like a simple concept — starting high school later to allow teenagers to sleep later. Doing so adapts to the natural sleep cycle of teens, which research show leads to improved student achievement, higher graduation rates and fewer disciplinary referrals.

But what seems easy in principle can be difficult to implement in practice. While some school districts around the country report success at changing to a later start time, others gave up on implementing the idea or tried it for a while and went back to the earlier starting hour.

School districts that made the change stick say good communication with families and staff is key to success. They moved the process slowly and deliberately and included the community. Districts that were unable to move start times commonly point to obstacles such as increased transportation costs, opposition from working parents, families’ needs for teenage students to watch younger siblings during afternoons and time conflicts for students with after-school jobs.

Compelling Science
Today, an estimated 400 school districts nationwide have moved their secondary schools to a later start, according to the publication California Schools, which investigated the phenomenon last year. (Other experts believe the number is even higher.) Modifying start times is not a one-size-fits-all solution to meeting the needs of high school students. However, it is a potential action with proven results that many districts should consider to help improve students’ educational outcomes, experts say.

“Once you start to look at the data and the research, you begin to understand why it’s so important,” says Paul Jenkins, superintendent of the Glens Falls City School District, located in a gateway city to New York state’s Adirondack Mountains.

Glens Falls changed its high school start time in September 2012, moving from 7:45 to 8:30 a.m. In the 5½ years since, the high school, with its 620 students, reported significant academic improvement and a 30 percent rise in students arriving to school on time. While other changes were taking place at the time, Jenkins says, “I think the change in start time was one of the big ones.”

The data behind these reforms are compelling. “Current scientific literature has clearly documented the positive outcomes associated with delayed high school start times,” writes Judith Owens, a medical doctor and sleep expert who co-wrote a well-publicized 2014 study.

Around the onset of puberty, adolescents experience a change in circadian rhythms. The amount of sleep they need doesn’t change — about nine hours — but the sleeping and waking cycle is shifted up to two hours later. The period of 5 to 7 a.m. is especially vital because of the REM sleep that takes place around this time. Thus teens naturally stay up later at night, but in many cases are forced to wake up before their bodies are ready. In 2006, the National Sleep Foundation reported “six in ten 9th- to 12th-grade adolescents (62 percent) get an insufficient amount of sleep on school nights.”

Students who don’t get enough sleep are at risk of more than just napping in homeroom. Owens says lack of sleep can affect mood, attention, memory, behavior control and impulse control. It can also lead to reduced academic achievement, higher rates of absenteeism, increased use of stimulants, greater risk of car accidents due to drowsiness and health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

Now a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital, Owens continues to advocate for adoption of later start times nationally.

“The more we look at this, the more evidence we accumulate to suggest that this is the right thing to do,” she says.

There is even an economic benefit to later start times, according to a 2017 study by the policy analyst organization Rand Corp. Last year, Rand released its economic analysis of later start times in U.S. schools and concluded the American economy could gain as much as $83 billion within 10 years if high schools around the country went to an 8:30 a.m. start time. The benefits would be realized mainly due to more well-rested teenagers avoiding fatal car collisions, doing better academically in school and obtaining higher-paying jobs after they graduate.

The benefits would be realized in spite of potential increased costs to schools, such as having to buy more buses, according to the study.

Two-Year Preparation
At Glens Falls, studies like the one by Owens helped inspire the district to consider a later start for the high school. The idea was first raised by teachers and administrators, Jenkins recalls. Too many high school students were groggy during first period, they told him. Was there something the district could do?

The school district spent two years studying the idea. Jenkins launched a newsletter for parents and staff titled StartTime, which was dedicated to information on the importance of sleep and adolescent circadian rhythms. The district also invited sleep experts to present information to parents and conducted a student sleep survey.

The district has one unique attribute that made the change easy — its territory is only four square miles. Most of the high school’s students walk or are driven to school, so changing the bus schedule — a major issue for many districts contemplating the move — was not a concern here.

Although some parents were initially opposed to the move, most adjusted quickly, Jenkins says. Jenkins, who had two teenagers in the high school at the time of the change, says each gained as much as 45 minutes of sleep each night. Since the change was made, graduation rates have risen from the low 70s to 89 percent, he says. The district also saw reductions in disciplinary actions, tardiness and absenteeism.

Optimizing Start Times 

Superintendent Jeffrey Moss (center) meets regularly with a student advisory body in Beaufort County, S.C., which flipped the start times of elementary and secondary schools in 2014.

In the Bedford County Public Schools in central Virginia, Superintendent Douglas Schuch implemented a staggered start time in 2011. The high school moved its opening from 8:30 to 8:55 a.m. while the elementary school moved its start from 8:30 to 7:55 a.m.

The new schedule met the approval of all 20 principals “who had done the reading on adolescent sleep,” Schuch says.

The proposal for a more efficient, two-tiered bus schedule initially was driven by economics. It required fewer bus drivers and buses, which saved the district $400,000. The amount was equivalent to about eight teaching positions at a time when Bedford County had cut more than $10 million from its $110 million budget due to the recession. Those cuts included the loss of about 180 full-time staff and popular programs such as high school courses in the arts and agriculture.

The move to a later start was announced six months before taking place, giving families and bus drivers advanced warning. Not everyone was happy with the change. Some bus drivers lost their jobs, some parents saw child care costs increase, and other parents worried about young kids waiting at a school bus in early-morning darkness.

Still, the amount of savings to the district was a compelling factor that won over most community members, says Schuch. “We simply had the opportunity to be more efficient with our transportation,” he says, adding, “I’m pleased we were able to make a decision that supports the adolescent sleep cycle.”

In 2014, the Beaufort County School District in South Carolina’s Low Country flipped its high school and elementary school start times, allowing the seven high schools to start at 8:45 a.m. and its 18 elementary schools at 7:45 a.m. The district, which enrolls about 22,000 students, began the change at one high school and soon moved it to its six other high schools.

Jeffrey Moss, Beaufort County’s superintendent, says data gathered by the district found that students’ grades — and students’ attitudes toward school — improved after the scheduling shift. Incidents of tardiness and discipline have decreased.
Still, criticism continues, mainly fueled by parents of elementary students concerned about the early bus pickups. “It’s an ongoing conversation,” Moss says.

Insurmountable Walls
Other schools considering these moves found enough problems to scuttle their hopes. In California, the Rocklin Unified School District weighed a later start time for its high schoolers in 2016 but backed off. The district, located at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains east of Sacramento, determined it would need to purchase four new buses and hire four new drivers, a significant cost. Also, surveys sent to parents found a majority opposed.

“We had a divided community,” says Kathy Pon, deputy superintendent of educational services in the 11,500-student Rocklin district. The board of education considered the matter after more than six months of study but set it aside owing to opposition.

In North Carolina, the Wake County Public School System found a similar transportation obstacle. In addition, some vocal parents objected because their teenage children were needed to look after younger siblings after parents left for work or before they returned, and the high school athletic teams would have trouble getting to away games on time if school started later.

In the suburbs of San Francisco, the San Mateo Union High School District briefly studied a possible shift in school start times in 2016. What ultimately caused the school board to abandon the idea was commuting, a major stress on residents’ lives in this densely settled region. Teachers worried about the heavier traffic they would confront driving to work in the morning. Some also predicted they wouldn’t be able to stay as long after school ended for clubs, sports or remedial help for students because of the need to beat the evening rush hour. Parents feared their children would be stuck on buses in clogged traffic longer.

“We didn’t get the full concerns until people realized we were serious” about a later start for secondary schools, says San Mateo’s superintendent, Kevin Skelly. “Moving from 8 to 8:30 made a big difference.” (See related story.)

The district dropped the idea of a daily schedule change but decided to pursue other methods of promoting sleep. A staff committee examined the quantity of homework students were receiving and whether that caused them to stay up later. In health classes, teachers conducted discussions about the importance of sleep, and the district sent home letters to educate parents about the issue. Notably, San Mateo’s 9,000 high school students start their instructional day 60 to 90 minutes late (depending on the school) once a week for staff meetings. “One day does help replenish them,” Skelly says.

In the Issaquah, Wash., district, Superintendent Ron Thiele is using University of Washington researchers to study the impact of the later school starting hours put in place last September.
Midway Solutions
Meanwhile, some school districts, realizing the unlikelihood of implementing new school day schedules, are finding ways to compromise.

Ann Arbor Public Schools in Michigan came up with a plan that allows all 9th- through 12th-grade students in all five of the district’s high schools to arrive at the start of second period if they wish. As an alternative for missing first period, students can take an additional class after school, enroll in an online course, attend a local college class or design an independent study program with a local expert. The plan was instituted in time for the 2017-18 school year.

In conjunction with these changes, the district worked with partner Durham Transportation to push back the earliest bus routes so no student is picked up before 7 a.m., even if their school day starts with the traditional first period class.

Paul DeAngelis, executive director of high school education for the district, says only a few high school students opted for the later start in its first year because schedules were set before the program was unveiled. But he expects to see interest grow.

“We believe in the research related to start times for teens,” DeAngelis says. “By looking to create more alternative instructional delivery methods ... we are beginning to meet the needs of students who want a later start time.”

The 20,000-student Issaquah School District in Washington found a different answer. For 15 years, the district had been discussing the idea of an 8:30 a.m. start time for the entire district, an hour later than what had been in place. The usual concerns from parents prevented the district from moving further.

Superintendent Ron Thiele split the difference. He recommended the three high schools start at 8 a.m., with the middle school at 8:10 a.m. and the elementary school at 9:10 a.m. It went into effect last September.

The new start times resulted in a more efficient bus schedule, but cost the district $700,000 for new buses and additional drivers. In a district with a $256 million budget, located in the heart of Seattle’s booming tech community, it was something they could accommodate easily.

“There’s not a lot of things I can do that costs (only) $700,000 that can positively impact thousands of students,” Thiele says.

The district continues to study the change, working with the University of Washington to survey teachers, students and community members about the impact. Issaquah’s leadership also has commissioned a survey of students about their sleeping habits to learn if the later start is making any difference. Thiele says, “I felt like I took a step in the right direction.”

ALAN WECHSLER is a freelance education writer in Albany, N.Y. Twitter: @alwechs

Additional Resources
» “Adolescents and Sleep” by Sarah Spinks, Public Broadcasting Service.

»Later Start Times for San Mateo Union High School District, PowerPoint of survey results and board presentation

» “School Start Time Change: An In-Depth Examination of School Districts in the United States” by Judith Owens, Darrel Drobnich, Allison Baylor and Daniel Lewin, Mind, Brain, and Education, published by International Mind, Brain and Education Society and Wiley Periodicals.

» “The Science of Adolescent Sleep” by Perri Klass, The New York Times. May 22, 2017.

» “Stop Starting Schools So Early, Doctors Say,” CBS News.