School & District Management Opinion

Start School Later: What Are We Waiting For?

By Dave Powell — March 29, 2016 4 min read
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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there’s no good reason for school to start as early as it does for young people. At least not any good reason I’ve heard.

In fact, there are plenty of great reaons to start much later. I wrote last month about the great effect starting later has on my family whenever the weather causes a two-hour delay. I heard from a few folks after that; some of them didn’t agree, but most of them did. One was Andra Williams Broadwater, a Maryland mom to four kids in grades K-6 who has worked in education policy in DC for over 17 years. Here’s how she describes her story:

A decade ago, awake bleary-eyed with young children, I noticed the high school bus rolling down my street, full, around 7 a.m., and realized how early the kids were expected to be be awake to learn. With the increase in research over the past few years about the educational, physical, and emotional harm to adolescents from these early wake times, I decided I had to act. I started the Baltimore County, Maryland chapter of "Start School Later" in the fall of 2014, hoping to protect future generations of students from these effects, including my own.

I asked Andra to write more about her work with Start School Later and she took me up on it. Here’s what she had to say:

Adolescent sleep has gotten a lot of attention lately. In 2014 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement saying no student should start school before 8:30 a.m. In 2015 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report supporting that position, pointing out that 2 out of 3 high school students sleep less than the recommended 9 hours each night, and only 15% of high schools start at the recommended 8:30 or after. Delaying start times, they say, has the greatest potential for improving student health for the entire district, not just for teenagers.

Across the country, research is demonstrating the positive outcomes when school districts start school later. In 2011, the Brookings Institution reported that moving school start times later especially helps increase test scores for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A 2014 University of Minnesota study found similar effects at 8 public high schools in 3 states: delaying school start times to 8:30 or later resulted in higher grades and scores on achievement tests in core subjects, and improved attendance and tardiness rates. In the community with the latest start time in the study, car crashes involving teen drivers declined by 70%.

In a show of leadership, some districts are making the change. The Seattle Public School Board voted to move most of its school start times past 8:30 a.m. starting next fall. Districts in Illinois, New York, South Carolina, Maine, and Tennessee have committed to change as well, and many more are considering it.

In my state of Maryland, parents have been working in some districts for nearly two decades to change the start times. Only one, Montgomery County, has managed any change, and that only a 20 minute delay, to at high school start time of 7:45 a.m.

That may finally be about to change. Our state assembly is considering a bill, the Orange Ribbon Bill for Healthy School Hours, a voluntary program that will award certification to districts that adopt healthy school hours. Levels of certification will be provided for even taking steps toward change—just conducting a school study task force on the topic would earn a partial certification toward recognition. The state is not providing any money for this initiative, which is unfortunate, but districts aren’t required to spend anything, either.

How are healthy hours being defined in Maryland’s Orange Ribbon Bill? Healthy school hours mean elementary school students would start classes at 8 a.m. or later and board buses no earlier than 7 a.m. Middle and high school students would begin classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. These guidelines follow recommendations from the AAP and CDC, as well as the 2014 Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene report on the topic. That report supported statewide action, concluding that leaving these decisions in the hands of local districts “risks letting local resistance trump a strong body of scientific evidence that sleep is critical to health and academic achievement.”

There is resistance to the Orange Ribbon Bill, of course. Some members of the General Assembly have cited start times as a local issue, justifying that as a reason why the state shouldn’t get involved. Upon hearing that from a state representative, I heard a parent comment: “The state tells us we can’t start school before a certain day. Why can’t they say schools can’t start before a certain time?”

Sounds like local resistance trumping scientific evidence for starting school later to me, exactly as predicted in the Maryland Department of Health report.

Start School Later, the national nonprofit with which I am working to move start times later in my district, Baltimore County, Maryland, numbers nearly 70 chapters in 23 states, more than double the number from a year ago. Parents can see the harmful effects of early start times on their children, and are working to make the change.

We love our children, and say we’d do anything for them. We might have to rearrange our lives a bit to accommodate a change in school start times, but it’s time for the nation’s school districts to recognize the effects of early start times on our children.

To do nothing is to do harm.

For more information about school start times and the research supporting starting later, visit these sites:

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