School & District Management

Later High School Start Times a Reaction to Research

By Jessica L. Tonn — March 21, 2006 5 min read

The West Des Moines school board last week adopted later daily starting times for the Iowa district’s high schools that will go into effect next school year. In Milwaukee, district officials are now letting high school students start their days 30 minutes to an hour later. The Tulsa, Okla., public schools, meanwhile, have flipped the starting times for elementary and high schools to give the older students more rest.

Research about the physical and mental benefits of later school starting times for teenagers has long since moved from scholarly journals to school board debates, as a flurry of recent action in West Des Moines and elsewhere shows. A growing number of school districts have altered their starting times or plan to do so at the beginning of next school year.

The issue strikes a nerve with educators, parents, and students wherever it comes up for discussion. For school leaders and their communities, letting teens sleep later typically means logistical and other trade-offs that ripple throughout the day.

For some districts, the change seems worth it—on the bottom line as well as in student well-being.

Savings Eyed

Administrators struggling with tight budgets say the altered schedules can lead to cost savings by forcing more efficient use of buses. West Des Moines school officials, for instance, predict potential savings of $700,000 annually from their start-time changes, or more than half what the district must cut from its 2006-07 budget.

“The sleep research was the catalyst, and the money was the motivation,” Kay Rosene, the director of school and community relations for the 8,700-student West Des Moines schools, said of her district’s decision.

“Without the need to cut the budget,” she said, “we might not have had any change.”

Research on the topic, which dates back to the late 1980s, generally concludes that most teenagers require nine hours of sleep a night, and that the hormonal changes of adolescence alter their sleeping cycles, causing them to stay up at night and sleep later than either younger children or adults.

But as school leaders decide whether to make schedule changes in response to those findings, they have to consider several factors about the research and the day-to-day realities of running schools.

Kyla Wahlstrom, the associate director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, pointed out in a 2002 study that adolescents are “substantially sleep deprived” when high schools start their days much before 8:15 a.m.

Yet the same report acknowledged that administrators also have to weigh the research conclusions against the “competing demands of teachers’ work preferences, athletic and after-school-activity schedules, and bus-transportation schedules.”

The 39,000-student Minneapolis school system is one of the nation’s most experienced districts in considering such questions. It changed its high school starting time from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. in 1997.

Researchers have since examined the effects of that decision.

Ms. Wahlstrom and her colleagues at the applied-research center, for instance, found that the later start time resulted in improved attendance, less sleeping in class, and less student-reported depression. They suggested that those results should prompt all high schools to “seriously consider” changes in their starting times.

Sleep Deprivation

Changing Schedules

Here are some of the school districts that have changed or plan to change their daily high school starting times.

South Burlington School District
South Burlington, Vt.
Enrollment: 2,500
Current Start Time: 7:40 a.m.
Future Start Time: 8:35 a.m.
(2006-07 school year)

West Des Moines Community Schools
West Des Moines, Iowa
Enrollment: 8,700
Current Start Time: 7:45 a.m.
Future Start Time: 8:20 a.m.
(2006-07 school year)

Milwaukee Public Schools
Enrollment: 95,000
Original Start Time: Between 7:25 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.
Current Start Time: 8:35 a.m.
(2005-06 school year)

Tulsa Public Schools
Tulsa, Okla.
Enrollment: 41,000
Original Start Time: 8 a.m.
Current Start Time: 8:45 a.m.
(2005-06 school year)

Arlington Public Schools
Arlington, Va.
Enrollment: 19,000
Original Start Time: 7:30 a.m.
Current Start Time: 8:19 a.m.
(2001-02 school year)

Minneapolis Public Schools
Enrollment: 39,000
Original Start Time: 7:15 a.m.
Current Start Time: 8:40 a.m.
(1997-98 school year)

SOURCE: Education Week

A more recent study—conducted by researchers at Northwestern University and published in the June 2005 issue of Pediatrics—concluded that high school students perform better later in the day than early in the morning, and that most high school schedules contribute to sleep deprivation among students.

“Anything that pushes [the start time] in the right direction is a good thing and helps kids,” said Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Ideally, though, she said high schools should start their days between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

The 2,500-student South Burlington, Vt., district recently hashed out the pros and cons of adjusting its school day.

Elementary and secondary schools there will swap schedules next school year. As a result, elementary school classes will last from 8 a.m. to 2:40 p.m.; middle school classes will last from 8:40 a.m. to 3:25 p.m.; and high school sessions will run from 8:35 a.m. to 3:20 p.m.

Patrick D. Burke, the principal of South Burlington High School, the district’s only high school, initiated the schedule change based on the research about the effects of sleep patterns on students’ health and academic performance.

Resistance to Change

He recalled in an interview last week that when he presented the plan to parents and staff members earlier this school year, one parent told him: “You don’t have to convince parents that their kids are tired.”

Other districts have met resistance. “The only thing that likes change is a wet baby,” said John Hamill, the director of public information for the 41,000-student Tulsa district in Oklahoma, describing his experience helping to persuade the community to accept a high school start-time change.

His district switched the starting times for elementary and secondary schools this school year. Elementary schools are open from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., and secondary schools are open from 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

While elementary principals pushed for the change, citing concerns about young students who were being dropped off at school by their parents before the staff arrived, high school parents complained that the district was coddling teenagers by delaying their arrival time, Mr. Hamill said.

Some students, parents, and coaches also expressed concern that the later high school dismissal would cut into sports teams’ practice time and thus hurt athletics, he said.

As it turns it, teams from the district have won the state high school football championship and both the boys’ and girls’ basketball championships this year, Mr. Hamill said.

“This is the first year in anyone’s memory that we’ve won three championships,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Later High School Start Times a Reaction to Research

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