Over the past few years, several school districts around the country have pushed their start times later for high school students in response to research that shows students’ internal clocks shift around adolescence, making it more difficult for them to rise early in the morning.
In many districts, the move to a later school start times for high school students means elementary school students will have to start school earlier.
That’s the proposal on the table in the Cherry Creek school district, which is located in the southeast Denver metropolitan area. But the plan has been met with strong opposition from elementary school parents who say an earlier start time would be detrimental to their children.
The Cherry Creek school board is set to vote tonight on a proposed schedule change that would push elementary school start times back from 9 a.m. to 8 a.m. The start times for high school students would go from 7:10 a.m. to 8:20 a.m., while middle school start times would shift from 7:50 a.m. to 8:50 a.m.
Lisa Meltzer has a son in 1st grade who attends school in that district, but she’s also an associate professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health who has written extensively about adolescent sleep patterns.
She recently addressed the board to offer her support for the proposal. She said the scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that early school start times are problematic for adolescents.
“As adolescents go through puberty, their internal clock, or circadian rhythm, is delayed, so that makes it very challenging for them to fall asleep early but in particular, very challenging for them to wake up early,” said Meltzer. “So we ask adolescents to wake up, often cases get behind the wheel of a car, go to school, and learn at a time when their brains should biologically be asleep.”
Amy Hair also has a 1st grader who attends school in the district. Last month, she started a Change.org petition against the proposed schedule, and so far it’s generated more than 380 signatures.
Hair told KDVR she’s concerned that the school board’s proposal is unfair to elementary school students.
“I’m really worried about the safety of the kids having to get up so early and them walking to the bus, walking to school, and not getting enough sleep,” she said. “I just worry what it does to the community because families won’t be spending as much time together.”
In her petition, she cites those concerns for the elementary school students who would have to adjust to an earlier schedule as well as several others, including adverse affects on academic performance, an increase in school absences and tardiness, and an increased need for after-school care.
The petition refers to a proposed elementary school start time of 7:55 a.m., but since then the school board has modified its proposal, which now calls for an 8:00 a.m. start time for elementary schools.
Tamiko Abo shares those concerns. Her daughter attends the nearby Littleton school district where the school board is considering a similar proposal. She created a Change.org petition to ask the board to reconsider.
“If this new start time is adopted, we’ve got kids that are going to be going to the bus stops and walking to school in the dark or dawn hours,” said Abo.
She said it would also have adverse effects on families in the evenings who would have to make big adjustments to their children’s bed times.
“We go to bed between 7:30 and 8,” said Abo. “We would have to go to bed between 6:30 and 7, so that doesn’t leave a huge amount of time for family time, especially if you have families that are working.”
While there is lots of research showing the benefits for later school start times for adolescents, there is very little research on the impact of earlier school start times for elementary students. Both Hair and Abo cite a 2015 University of Kentucky study that found adverse academic outcomes for upper- and middle-class elementary school students with earlier school start times. But critics argue that more research is needed and point out what they say are flaws with that study.
Meltzer said she understands those parents’ concerns, but elementary students should be able to adjust well to the change.
“Most elementary school children wake early, and for those that don’t because their circadian rhythms have not been delayed, it is easier to adjust their sleep schedules to wake earlier if needed,” said Meltzer.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.