School & District Management

Starting High School Later Shows ‘Big Impact’

By Alyson Klein — February 25, 2020 3 min read
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Brian Harris has a lot of physicians living in his affluent suburban Chicago district. And for years, they have told him that the district’s high school start time at around 7:20 a.m. was way too early for bleary-eyed teenagers.

So, as part of a districtwide push to make better, evidence-based use of time, the superintendent of the Barrington 220 district in Barrington, Ill., got to work pushing back high school start times to 8:30 a.m. That’s the earliest recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Middle schoolers, who some experts suggest may need the extra shut-eye even more than their high school counterparts, now start at 9 a.m. And rise-and-shine elementary students, who learn best first thing in the morning, begin class at 8 a.m.

The district’s decision was supported by an avalanche of research, dozens of experts, and even parents, especially those in the health-care profession.

Starting high school later has been shown to reduce teenage depression and car accidents, and contribute to higher test scores. That’s partly because teenagers get their most productive, rapid-eye-movement sleep in the early-morning hours.

Hard to Change

Early start times mean “truncating dream sleep” for higher schoolers, said Dr. Daniel Lewin, the associate director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Hospital in Washington. “The general take-home message is that when kids sleep longer and have more sleep time in the morning, they have better emotion and regulation, better attention on the highways and in class.”

But all that evidence doesn’t mean the change was easy. In fact, it took Harris and his team two years—and a lot of outreach—to implement.

“It was a big shift in our community, big impact,” Harris said. The change affected parents, teachers, and students and also local businesses, day-care providers, and more. Shifting start times even transformed traffic patterns on busy roads.

Organizations like dance studios had to change their business hours, so that they could be open when children were available. “We had to get them on board with what we were doing,” Harris said.

The general take-home message is that when kids sleep longer and have more sleep time in the morning, they have better emotion and regulation, better attention on the highways and in class.

Another group that had to adjust: day-care providers. Elementary school students are now dismissed at 2:45 p.m., when many parents are still working. And their older siblings are no longer able to watch them after school because they are still in class. “We had to really ramp up the after-school options at the elementary level,” Harris said.

At the other end of the spectrum, local fast-food joints and grocery stores who hire teenagers had to wrap their minds around the shift. “All of a sudden, they weren’t available to be at work at 3 o’clock,” the superintendent said. “Now, they couldn’t get there ‘til 4.”

And, of course, there were other changes to district operations. Bus routes needed to be rethought. So did after-school activities. Teachers’ own schedules changed.

To help smooth the process, Harris convened an “advisory group” of about 40 to 50 parents, educators, representatives from the chamber of commerce, and local government officials. They studied school start times for about six months and then made a recommendation to the board of education. “They helped explain to the rest of the community the importance of it,” Harris said.

Was it worth it? The data seem to suggest it was. Before the change was implemented 2½ years ago, academic grades in every student’s first-period class—no matter what it was—were one standard deviation below the rest of the periods of the day. But now, there’s no difference between student grades for their earlier and later classes, Harris said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Later Start Times: ‘Big Shift, Big Impact’

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