School & District Management Opinion

School Start Times Can Leverage Deeper Change

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 02, 2014 3 min read
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Consideration of school start times has risen again from the quiet background onto the top of the lists in many school districts. We raised this issue in a blog post in October 2013 and so our readers know that we support this reconsideration. Changing school start times may be responsive to the lives of children and families. That may be enough of a reason to change them. Back in August CNN reported about the concern arising from pediatricians that it is unhealthy and unsafe to have early start times for students. In that same month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement urging “middle and high schools to start at 8:30 a.m. or later.” From that August WSJ article:

Some researchers go even further. Paul Kelley, a sleep researcher at Oxford University in England, says 10 a.m. or later is the ideal start time for high schools. Oxford and Harvard researchers used international data on sleep patterns from more than 150,000 people, along with 30 years of research, to come up with the time. Their findings were published online this month in the education journal Learning, Media and Technology.

Schedules, like many other parts of school structures, are part of tradition that has become embedded practice; the reasons for which have become unclear. In 2007 NPR reported, the Minneapolis School District “changed its start time from 7:20 to 8:40 a.m., giving its 12,000 high schoolers an extra hour and twenty minutes each morning.” An educational researcher from the University of Minnesota following districts who changed school start times, Kyla Wahlstrom was quoted as saying the students have benefited from the change.

Students reported less depression when there was a later starting time. And teachers reported that students were more alert and ready for learning. Parents reported that their children were easier to live with because their emotions were more regulated.

So where does this leave their schools today? A review of their website shows that none of their high schools start earlier than 8 a.m. Changing high school start times may very well help students in some very important ways. But, we wonder who is doing the research about what happens over time to students whose start times are later? What will we learn from these who have taken this bold action? Do these students get more sleep, have fewer accidents, and learn better? Or are these students staying up even later now? Can texts, email, gaming, social communication like Pintrest and the plethora of others that are of interest to them cause them to stay up later? What are parents experiencing; are they more effective telling teens to go to sleep if school starts later? And, is sleep deprivation a contributing issue that stands in the way of high school success?

Expand the Discussion to Include 21st Century School Design
We think sleep is an important factor contributing to good physical and emotional health. We think good health is part of the foundation needed for learning. And we think the time is right to reexamine school schedules. But why not take advantage of the interest in changing school schedules and roll the rest of what needs to change for 21st century learning into this conversation? Schools for this century include research, re-designed curriculum, integrated technology, partnerships with business and Higher Education, professional development, and yes, flexible schedules.

We have spent the past two years focused on the successful implementation of STEM as the basis for K-12 educational shift into a new design. From it we affirmed that time is one essential factor. Time needs to respond to the design of the school. Too frequently, time and schedules are part of the tradition and becomes a delimiter rather than a resource. With teachers and accompanying experts redesigning curriculum, including technology, professional partners, and supportive professional development, flexible schedules should follow. If we continue to look at each of the issues on the cycle above as separate concerns, like time being separated from curriculum design, we will be spinning our wheels and wasting an opportunity to make systemic change.

Let’s expand our vision and maybe our impact. If this is the moment to connect time, STEM, closing achievement gaps, securing new funds streams, increasingly accessible technology, and widely diverse learning needs, leaders, with excitement, can cause some disruptive innovation. Then, maybe, their schools will burst into this century, finally.

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