The debate regarding school start times has returned.
The Hartford Courant reported last summer that “despite the lack of support at the state Capitol, the issue continues to simmer in some school districts across the state.”
A CTNewsJunkie story in February featured Guilford School Superintendent Paul Freeman saying, “We recognize that changing start times will be a positive for our students. We will continue to work towards that change of times in the future.”
The idea is to open middle schools and high schools later in the morning to match teenagers’ body clocks. The supporting evidence is overwhelming.
“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ School Start Times for Adolescents.
“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” Dr. Owens said.
Similarly, researchers at the University of Minnesota “analyzed data from more than 9,000 students at eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming and found that shifting the school day later in the morning resulted in a boost in attendance, test scores, and grades in math, English, science and social studies.”
Accordingly, just before the current school year, the Centers for Disease Control endorsed later start times.
“Getting enough sleep is important for students’ health, safety, and academic performance,” said epidemiologist Anne Wheaton in an official CDC statement. “Early school start times, however, are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need.”
The issue is a no-brainer. Teenagers have no business arriving at school long before the sun rises.
So why do only 17.7 percent of all schools begin after 8:30 a.m., according to the CDC, while nearly a third start before 7:30 a.m.?
The first reason for early start times is after-school activities.
“Any delay in the start of school will most likely result in a later release time, which may reduce time available for [sports] practices and matches,” according to the National Sleep Foundation. “One result of later release times may be greater competition for field and gym space, which may result in the cancellation of some programs. If school gets out later, some athletes might be required to leave class early in order to attend a match.”
Of course, a school’s first responsibility is to educate students — not to serve as a sports organization — so critics do not find extra-curricular activities a compelling reason for maintaining early start times.
Then again, some schools see a large proportion of their student body participate in athletics. Where I teach, 74 percent of all students are members of at least one team, so a later school start time could unfavorably affect a good number of our kids.
Another obstacle for changing start times is transportation.
“Because most school districts have a delicately balanced bus transportation system designed to run as efficiently and inexpensively as possible, any change in the school schedule can have a severe impact,” explains the Sleep Foundation. “The specific circumstances in each district vary, but problems that arise can include cost, recruiting drivers, and/or redesigning the routes.
“One solution that has worked to solve this problem,” adds the Foundation, “is flipping start times, most commonly elementary with high school. This solution requires no extra buses or drivers, just a change in the order of pickups. This schedule also seems to be more appropriate to elementary school students’ sleep schedules, because young children tend to wake up earlier in the morning.”
But perhaps not that much earlier.
University of Kentucky researchers “found that elementary-age children living in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods of Kentucky demonstrate weaker academic performance when they are required to start classes early.”
Researcher Peggy S. Keller explained how swapping secondary schools’ start times with those of elementary schools might not be the answer: “Our findings suggest that these policy changes may simply be shifting the problem from adolescents to younger children, instead of eliminating it altogether.”
Many parents of elementary students in Greenwich — where new start times were discussed last October — agree with Keller.
“We are going to be in a lot of trouble if next year, or the year after, we’re going to be getting up at 6 a.m., and our kids are going to school in the dark,” said Ali Lacoff, the mother of a first-grader and two preschoolers.
Added Richard Kral, the father of three middle schoolers and one fifth grader: “I don’t believe a start time for schools is the true root of the problem. I don’t want to just change start times to pick the top off the weed here. I think there’s more to it than that.”
And that, essentially, is the problem: School start times are not the quick fix that many proclaim.
“This is the single most complicated issue that I have been involved with in my time on the Board of Education, and I’ve been on it since 1999,” said Guilford School Board Chairman William Bloss. “Every time we answer one question, two others are raised.”
Personally, I’m not opposed to changing the start time at my high school. I just feel like I’ve been here before — trying to solve yet another school malady with yet another remedy.
Only time will tell if this particular remedy’s time will come in Connecticut.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.