Making Democracy Work

School Hours for Middle and High School Students (2005)

"School hours for middle and high school students" was adopted as a one-year study as part of the 2004-2005 LWVMPC Program at the May 2004 Annual Meeting. The purpose was to look at school starting and ending times for middle and high school students in light of recent research on the sleep needs of adolescents.

Adolescents' Need for Sleep

In spite of popular opinion, teenagers are not lazy. In the 1990's, research established that adolescents need more sleep than younger children or adults. We all have circadian (biological) rhythms. The circadian rhythms of adolescents are affected by biological changes they undergo during puberty, which make them fall asleep later and sleep later. Teens consistently need between 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep per night. It is often difficult for teenagers to fall asleep before 11 p.m. According to Kyla Wahlstrom, a leading researcher on high school starting times and associate director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, sleepiness is induced by the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is secreted in the teen body later in the evening, around 11 p.m. and remains in the system until about 8 a.m. Because there is so much in their schedules aside from school, including extracurricular activities, athletics, jobs and social activities, early school start times deprive students of the rest they need by at least an hour. The start time for many high schools is 7:15, 7:30 or 7:45 a.m., and some activities are scheduled before classes start. Without adequate rest, adolescents are subject to early morning drowsiness, which interferes with learning, causes students to fall asleep in class and contributes to driving accidents. Students have been referred to as "walking zombies."

Schools' Role in Accommodating Adolescents' Biological (Circadian) Rhythm

It is believed that teens may have fewer problems if allowed to start school at a time that accommodates their biological tendency to delayed circadian rhythms. Schools could accomplish this by starting middle school and high school later. A school start time of 9:00 a.m. is often cited as the optimum for teens, enabling students to get adequate rest and perform well in school.

Advantages to a Later School Start Time

Better use of the education dollar: students perform better with adequate rest; Reduced risk of fall-asleep car crashes; Reduced risk of metabolic and nutritional deficits associated with insufficient sleep, including obesity; More time for students to rest before school and less time to get into trouble after school; Less teen depression; Improved grades in first two class periods; Improved attendance; Decline in tardiness; Reduced drop-out rates.

Disadvantages to a Later School Start Time

Adjustments would have to be made to family schedules, childcare, and carpools; It may be difficult to juggle bus route schedules, or more buses may be necessary; It may be difficult to develop a common class/vacation-day schedule for all schools affected; A later start time means a later finish time, pushing athletic practices and competition, play rehearsals, etc., to the darker hours of the evening; After-school sports competitions may require that students have to be released earlier and miss all or some of a class period; Interference with after-school jobs; Teachers need to stay at school later.

What Are Schools Doing?

In 1997 the Minneapolis (Minnesota) Public School District was the first in the nation to change to later start times for its seven high schools, changing school-day hours from 7:15 a.m. - 1:45 p.m. to 8:40 a.m. - 3:20 p.m. It is also the only school district in which there has been a longitudinal study of the effects of the hours change (three years before the start-time change and three years following). Findings indicated that the students benefited from the change with improved attendance and enrollment rates, less sleeping in class, less student-reported depression, and improved behavior in the halls. Students in Minneapolis got five more hours of sleep per week than their peers in schools with early start times. The change proved beneficial for learners at risk of dropping out of school because of missing too many first- and second-period classes, thus being short of graduation credits. None of the studies indicated dramatic improvement.

In 1999 North Clackamas School District in Oregon changed its high school hours from 7:30 a.m. - 2:20 p.m. to 8:45 a.m. - 3:20 p.m. after high school principals had been recommending a later start for a decade and the district had studied the proposed change for a year. The issue was that high school students simply were not awake for early morning classes because they needed more sleep. To offset the later high school start time, the elementary schools started earlier. The transportation issue was settled by interchanging the high school bus route times and the elementary school bus route times. There was concern that the younger children would have to wait for the bus in the dark during the winter, but no problems occurred. The only real problem that occurred was that, in order to meet long-distance athletic competition schedules, sometimes students would have to leave classes early. The benefits, however, were improved attendance and an improved GPA in the first period classes for high school students. The result is that everyone likes the change--the students, the parents and the community--and the district has kept those hours.

According to The Oregonian, Beaverton schools moved the high school starting time back 25 minutes, to 7:45 a.m. in 1999, but apparently have not done a study to see what effect this had. Portland School officials were to consider a later start time for high schools in 2001, but apparently have not done so.

In the Salem-Keizer School District, a later start time for high school students was on the agenda for the January 9, 2001, School Board meeting. The Statesman-Journal ran an editorial that morning listing the pros and cons for the idea and encouraging the public to attend that meeting and to comment. Their pros and cons are included in those listed above. The School Board meeting included a report on the Common Calendar Feasibility Study initiated in March 2000. On February 12, 2002, the Start-and-Stop Times Work Group issued the Start-and-Stop Times Study. This report included a scenario of two separate, staggered start-and-stop times at each high school and a later start time for middle schools. The report cited observed improvements when other school districts have implemented them and potential benefits to later school start times for adolescents. However, potential drawbacks weighed heavily, specifically, difficulty in scheduling extended after-school and co-curricular activities and athletic practices and competitions (e.g., during winter darkness), which may require additional buses, routes and drivers, more staff for music programs, etc. The Board took no action.

References

National Sleep Foundation, "Seven Sleep-Smart Tips for Teens." See http://www.sleepfoundation.org.

Johnson, Kyle P., M.D., "The Sleepy Teenager" in The Harvard Mental Health Letter, November, 2001.

Sleepmatters, National Sleep Foundations's quarterly newsmagazine, "A Look at the School Start Times Debate," Summer 2004.

University of Minnesota, College of Education & Human Development, Research and Expertise. See http://www.education.umn.edu/research/.

Donahoo, Saran, "Should Teens Sleep In? New Choices in School Starting Times," Adoption Library. See http://www.library.adoption.com.

Wahlstrom, Kyla, "Changing Times: Findings From the First Longitudinal Study of Later High School Start Times," December 2002 Principals.

Crombie, Noelle, The Oregonian, "High schools wake up to later-start idea," June 12, 2000.

Salem Statesman Journal editorial, "Make your views known," January 9, 2001.

Drakulich, Elaine, Assistant Superintendent, North Clackamas School District, telephone interview, February 16, 2005.

Bednarek, Mike, Special Projects Coordinator, Salem-Keizer School District, telephone interview, March 8, 2005.

Start-and-Stop Times Study, a report of the Start-and-Stop Times Work Group, Salem-Keizer School District, February 12, 2002.

Wheeler, Maureen, Administrator, Community Involvement Department, Beaverton School District, telephone interview, March 18, 2005.

Brzezinski, Evelyn, Administrator, Research and Evaluation, Portland School District, March 22, 2005.

Committee Members: Lucia Norris, Chair; Bea Epperson, Sharon Johnson, Paul Norris

Published March 2005