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Schools Look To Shifting Start Times To Better Student Performance

Stephen Downes

Take a minute - think about your typical morning routine.

Now, imagine your boss asks you to come in an hour earlier. You’d have to shift that routine, maybe eliminate it altogether, or else sacrifice sleep.

This is something teenagers across the country are experiencing as they’re being asked to get to school earlier than they’re used to. And it’s throwing off not only their morning routine, but their sleep schedule as well.

"It makes sense for us to start our middle schoolers and high school students a little later," says Noblesville Schools spokeswoman Marnie Cooke.

Starting next school year, her district plans to solve the sleep dilemma by delaying the first bell by a little more than an hour. Instead of 7:35, middle and high school students will start their day at 8:45.

"Adolescents need more sleep and perform better academically as well as just have less instances of depression and attendance issues if they are able to start school a little later," Cooke says.

Numerous studies have shown that she’s right. Ideally, researchers say teenagers should get between 8-and-a-half and 9-and-a-half hours of sleep each night. But polls show only 41-percent of middle school students and 13-percent of high schoolers do.

Dr. Vaughn Rickert is an adolescent medicine professor at the IU School of Medicine. He says the longer teens can sleep, the better the quality of that sleep will be. 

"In the early morning hours, you’re spending anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes in what we call REM sleep. That’s the sleep that really contributes to restfulness. The brain is developing at this point in time at incredible rates, and kids require increased hours of quality sleep," he says.

District officials in Noblesville have been hosting community forums the last few months. For the most part, Marnie Cook says teachers, staff and parents have been on board with the later start, but she says there are obviously going to be some concerns anytime you’re talking about disrupting someone’s routine.

"The need for them to make adjustments to their child care plans, concerns about not preparing students for life after high school. There’s no way around the fact that it will be a disruption for some families to make these changes," she says. "We want to make sure that obviously when we do implement a change, that we’re maximizing the efficiency of how we’re doing that."

It’s 7:35 a.m. when the bell rings at each of the nine high schools in the Evansville Vanderburgh School district. The start time here is nearly an hour earlier than what the American Pediatric Association recommends, and it’s ten minutes earlier than last year.

Superintendent David Smith says the push forward came as a sort of side effect of lengthening the school day for elementary students.

"I’ve joked a few times with my minister that the most controversial thing that I think any church does is change the time of worship, and I think I can kind of share your pain," Smith says.

But when the district adjusted elementary start times to make for a longer school day, pickup times for middle and high school students had to be moved up.

Smith says although he thinks it would be a good idea to let high school students start later, logistically it’s just not possible. The district is not in a financial position to expand its bus fleet, and he worries about the area’s Career and Technical Center, which services 19 other high schools in five surrounding counties in addition to Evansville.

"I certainly think our start and end times can be tweaked somewhat," Smith says. "We’ll continue to process what we can do to have our high schools start later, but that’s a conversation that’s going to involve 5 counties, and about probably 40,000 students and several districts."

Evansville, like other districts, can edit its own hours as long as they meet the state-mandated requirements – at least six hours of class time per day for students in grades seven through 12, and five hours for anyone younger than that.

In the meantime, students will get to school at 7:30 – and hopefully, get to bed in enough time to have a productive day.