American teenagers are leading busier lives than in generations past, often resulting in late nights and early mornings for many who begin their days — crowded with activities and obligations — bleary-eyed from fatigue.
The first period of the day for students of McMurray Middle School and Vashon Island High School starts at 8 a.m. But now, school board officials are asking if there might be an appetite in the community to explore the possibility of implementing later start times for sixth to twelfth graders.
Many school districts in Washington, including Mercer Island and Seattle, have moved to start their younger students earlier and allow for a later start — closer to 9 a.m. — in middle and high schools. While no decision about changing start times has been made for the Vashon Island School District, about ten members of the community attended an informal conversation with Superintendent Slade McSheehy last Thursday to discuss the benefits and impacts of such a decision. Those at the meeting noted that while research supports the notion that adolescents would do well to start the school day later, some uncertainties loom, from concern over unintended scheduling impacts to providing adequate child care around the traditional nine to five workday.
“The first high school I worked at, we started at seven,” McSheehy said, adding that he and his colleagues were in the building by 6:30 a.m.
He noted his own experience working with delayed start times, most recently in his former role as the assistant superintendent in the Hockinson School District, where the first year with late start times for students ultimately had little impact on after-school programs but did mean some change for the regular school day. McSheehy said, for example, that faculty found better success using the sixth period in the afternoon for instruction that was less academic.
Flipping the school schedules so that elementary students would start the day first was not favored by everyone, he said. The most difficult transition for many families occurred at the bus stop, where small children began waiting earlier, including in the darker winter months. McSheehy said there was always an adult at the bus stop accompanying younger children, but some felt strongly that there was a safety issue.
“There was just something in the narrative … in this picture that the community really felt was somehow unjust to our younger students who had to stand in the dark for how many weeks of winter,” he said, adding that disapproval eventually faded.
Late start times at the Hockinson district were not only driven by the availability of supporting research and the increasing number of surrounding districts that were adopting the practice, McSheehy said. There was a strong financial incentive for officials at that district, as well: Reducing the number of bus runs for each school at the district and flipping the schedule, he said, resulted in a savings of around $300,000.
Vashon school board members have not done much of their own study into all of the moving pieces involved with changing start times in the island school district, McSheehy said, and if the topic is explored more fully in the coming months, no change would be made until at least the 2021 to 2022 school year. But for some time, the idea has captured the attention of school district officials and educators both in Washington and across the country, with some legislators even codifying delayed start times into law.
Lawmakers in California passed a bill in October prohibiting most middle and high schools from opening before 8:30 a.m. A legislator in Utah is also currently advancing a bill to delaying start times in that state, citing the risks of sleep deprivation to teens. Those fears are not unfounded: Researchers studying the science of sleep agree that inadequate sleep among young people is a serious problem. In a 2018 article, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that when children and adolescents don’t get enough rest, they are put at risk for developing obesity and diabetes, suffering from poor mental health, attention and behavior problems, and their academic performance declines.
Even with the clear gains presented by delaying school for secondary students, coupled with the fact that many younger students are often earlier risers by nature, island opinions about the mighty task of implementing late start times range.
Steve Ellison, a former Vashon school board member who last served in 2017, said at the meeting that in his recollection, the district discussed the issue of late start times anywhere from four to six years during his tenure on the board. Still, he isn’t convinced that the issue of teens not getting enough sleep can’t be solved by a modest change in routine: If people are giving themselves the time they need to rest, he said, they’ll get it.
But not everyone agrees that modest change is enough.
Everest Montagnet, a Vashon Island School District student who was in attendance at the meeting, is a proponent of later start times for high school students. He said he is aware that many of his peers who live off-island are kept awake past midnight doing homework. For them, he said, they have to be ready at unreasonable hours for school to catch the ferry, as early as 5:30 a.m.
“[The day] starts really early, but we also need a lot of sleep to be able to function good,” Montagnet said.
McMurray Middle School principal Greg Allison said he was familiar with the advantages for adolescents who were given more time to sleep. He added that later start times may help alleviate tardiness in the middle school, aware that some children experience difficulty waking up earlier during the transition from fifth to sixth grade.
“I think for some kids, a later start would certainly help,” he said. But Allison cautioned that making such a decision for the island school district would require extensive planning and work.
Transportation challenges around busing and ferries have hampered discussion of the possibility of implementing late start times in the island district in the past.
According to Vashon High School principal Danny Rock, the last time the district priced out additional bus runs, the cost would have exceeded well over $200,000. Flipping the school schedule, he added, would likely pose a significant burden on commuters of the district, many of whom are already getting home late in the day if they are involved in extracurriculars or sports.
Rock said that he is in favor of starting high school later, noting its successes where it has been tried, but he isn’t sure the community is ready.
“I support it, but it’s going to take a lot more money than we currently have, or it’s going to take a lot more demand in our community than is currently being expressed,” he said. Rock added that in recent years the high school faculty has made efforts to scale back the amount of homework assigned to students and reduce the time it takes to complete it by giving more targeted practices.
Adolescents aged 13 to 18 years old should sleep eight to 10 hours a night, according to the CDC, but for many of them, balancing homework and extracurriculars, coupled with the logistics of travel, push the hours they spend awake past what is considered acceptable for living a healthy life, at a time crucial to their development.
The circadian cycle helps the mind and body maintain an internal “clock” for eating, sleeping and rest times, determined by genes and external cues from the environment, such as sunlight. But the onset of puberty lengthens the circadian cycle in adolescents. This causes teens to fall asleep later each night and wake up later each morning relative to most children and adults, according to the University of Washington.
Hoping to assess how teens benefit from more sleep, researchers from UW found in a 2018 study that sophomore students of two schools in the Seattle School District, which implemented late start times almost three years ago, did not stay awake longer at night when they had time to sleep in the next morning. Instead, they went to bed as normal and slept in, resulting in a median increase of 34 minutes of sleep each night.
Thornton Creek Elementary principal Doug Ouellette served on the committee tasked with considering what it would mean to change bell times in the Seattle School District, a process he said involved multiple stakeholders who considered the impacts and where burdens could be reduced. He recommends that other districts such as Vashon take a thorough approach, as they did.
“I’ve always felt, when I walked away from that, [that] we had made the best decisions based on all the information we had gathered,” he said.
Franklin High School science teacher A.J. Katzaroff, whose class participated in the UW study, said the benefits of starting later are still clear in her classroom today.
“My kids are much more awake, especially in my first two periods. I can still say I have far fewer absences and tardies. It’s so much more fun to teach kids who are more awake and who can participate because their brains and their bodies get more of the biological rest that they actually need,” she told The Beachcomber in an interview. “If it’s helping them learn more, that’s the goal of our education system and school district.”