School & District Management

Madison District Considers Later School Start Times for Middle School Students

By Marva Hinton — June 17, 2016 3 min read
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School leaders in Madison, Wisc., are taking a hard look at pushing back morning bell times for students in middle school.

“I think all districts should consider it,” said TJ Mertz, the Madison school board member who proposed the idea. “Literally hundreds of studies have shown that—not only in terms of physical health but mental health and indicative of contributing to academic achievement—later start times make sense. Our start times are particularly early.”

Ten of the 12 middle schools in the district now start at 7:35 a.m.

“That means buses are boarded much earlier, and these middle schoolers are getting out of bed in the 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock hour at a time when their bodies and brains are meant to be sleeping,” said Kari Oakes, a physician assistant and the research director for Start School Later, a nonprofit advocacy group. “This is a problem not just for learning, which is significantly negatively impacted by these hours, but also for health.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to better align with adolescents’ natural body rhythms. In response to this recommendation, several school districts across the country have looked into or implemented later school start times for high schools. But in Madison the focus is on middle school students.

“Our high schools already start after 8 a.m. Generally, they start around 8:15. That’s much, much closer to the recommendation than our middle schools.”

And, Mertz said, once you get to the high school level, tinkering with a schedule gets trickier.

“Logistically and politically, middle school is easier to change,” said Mertz. “When you start to get to high school, you get concerns about extracurricular activities, jobs, and things like that, particularly around sports and schedules with practices where you’re going to meet resistance.”

Possible Sticking Points

Although fewer middle school students have after-school jobs and Mertz said the response to his proposal has been overwhelmingly positive, the district will have to contend with some transportation issues if it decides to change middle school start times.

For one, many students take city buses to school. These buses operate on dedicated routes to serve the schools rather than regular metropolitan routes.

“Many of those buses do double duty, first picking up and dropping off middle schoolers and then doing second routes for our high schoolers,” said Mertz.

Then there’s the fact that some of the district’s middle schools share sites with elementary schools, while some are adjacent to high schools. Making the start times closer to each other could cause massive traffic tie-ups.

These are some of the issues the district’s chief of schools for operations will be trying to figure out in addition to doing community outreach and surveys to determine where the public stands on this issue.

This in-depth study is expected to take about a year, and Mertz is hopeful the board will be able to vote on the issue by May of 2017. He’d like to see a new schedule in place by the beginning of the 2017-18 school year.

If the school board takes that step, Oakes said students will see several benefits.

“When school starts at a time that’s more in sync with the circadian rhythm of children at this age, we see reduced depression, reduced anxiety, better overall school performance, better attendance, increased graduation rates among older children,” said Oaks.

Along with reading lots of research into why later start times are ideal for adolescents, Mertz said he’s lived this as a parent. His son just finished middle school this year.

“It was a strain,” said Mertz. “About a third of the school year, he would go out to the bus in the dark and in Wisconsin winters, half asleep, often in not the best of moods. I would not have wanted to be his 7:37 teacher. Adolescents are not at their most engaged and productive before 8:30. They’re just not.”

Photo: The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that young people’s sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty, which makes it hard for teens to get up for classes in the 7 o’clock hour. (Getty)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.