Yet another study on the benefits of later school start times

I can't believe I'm writing about this again.

My fourth column, written in October of 2003, focused on the mountains of scientific research showing conclusively that early school start times for middle and high school students are harmful for teens.

Since then, I’ve written two more columns on the subject, in 2010 and 2013, and referenced the insanity of early start times in numerous other columns, all the while expressing exasperation at the deafening silence from education leaders.

But, at long last, change in the San Dieguito Union High School District may be afoot, precipitated by the Aug. 25 release of a yet another study on the subject, this one by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes insufficient sleep in adolescents as an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students,” The AAP’s Abstract begins.

“[T]he evidence strongly implicates earlier school start times (i.e., before 8:30 a.m.) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption, in this population.”

The 24-hour internal body clock, each person’s circadian rhythm, shifts during puberty and alters adolescent sleep settings. This natural shift in teens, according to the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, is called “sleep phase delay” which delays the urge to sleep.

The AAP reported that moving start times later “will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty.”

This change in natural sleep cycles makes it difficult for teens to go to bed early enough to get the recommended nine hours of sleep they need each night, if they have to contend with an early school start time.

According to Mayo Clinic, more than 90 percent of teens in a Journal of School Health study reported sleeping less than nine hours a night and 10 percent of teens reported sleeping less than six hours a night.

“A substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety and academic achievement,” the AAP report stated.

The AAP recommends that school districts adopt later start times, which would help improve the physical health of teens, reduce the risk of obesity, lower rates of depression, improve mental outlook, reduce drowsiness which can result in driving accidents and poor decision-making, increase alertness, raise academic performance, and enhance the overall quality of life for teenagers.

San Dieguito reaction

“We’re totally aware of this,” said Jason Viloria, SDUHSD’s executive director of educational services. “This is not the first time this recommendation has been made.”

Vilora said the AAP report has been shared with all the district’s principals, who have been asked to begin a conversation about the issue with their communities – faculty, parents and students.

The report, he said, is “somewhat timely in that all of our schools are looking at different options moving forward.” He said this was a priority even before the AAP study was released.

“We can’t just push aside what research says,” he said. “Research says that this is a very important piece of what we should do in education.”

The goal is to offer students flexible start times, meaning students can choose to start earlier or later.

Under this scenario, schools may offer a full school day with start times as early as 7:30 a.m. and possibly as late as 9:30 a.m., according to SDUHSD superintendent Rick Schmitt.

“This is a big topic of conversation that’s obviously front and center for us, to provide students and families that option,” Viloria said.

There is no over-arching policy or position that the district or the school board is adopting, he said. Rather, these decisions are being left up to individual schools.

“Right now we want the schools to work with their community stakeholders to figure out what works best for them,” he said. “It’s important that we don’t just say this is what it has to be.”

Flexible start times may be implemented by next fall, he said, depending upon how each school site decides to proceed.

“I guarantee that there’s going to be a change at each site,” said Viloria, although he wouldn’t say when those changes might happen.

He pointed to Diegueno Middle School in Encinitas as a good model for having developed a system of flexible start times that works well.

“We’re not recreating the wheel here,” he said. “There are plenty of schools out there that have made some shifts toward flexible start times for students.”

SDUHSD’s Faculty Association is involved in the process, Viloria said, noting that teachers at Diegueno were on-board with the change, with some wanting to come in early and others preferring to start and end later.

Influence of athletics programs

After-school activities, particularly athletics, can present a major obstacle to later start times.

When sporting events schedules and travel times to away games force students to miss classes at the end of the day (priorities here?), many parents and student-athletes become fiercely resistant to any change that would result in later dismissal times.

If parents would apply the same zeal to the need for later start times that they display when they mobilize and lobby intensely over trainers, coaches and other sports issues, imagine what would happen.

Viloria said the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF is the governing body for high school sports in California) has left the issue of school start and end times up to each school.

“I get the sense that CIF doesn’t really want to enter that area,” he said.

Clearly that’s the case.

By not taking a student-centered position on the issue and refusing to recognize the problem, CIF has had an undue influence on bell schedules.

One student who spent a year in Europe on an exchange program commented on-line on the issue, writing, “Perhaps other countries don’t have as big of a problem with teenager sleep issues in part because other countries don’t overvalue sports in the educational system.”

One school district cannot go it alone against CIF on this issue. But there’s hope.

Coincidentally and fortuitously, Torrey Pines High School principal David Jaffe is San Diego County’s CIF North County conference president this year, and he said he plans to bring up the issue at upcoming meetings with principals and athletic directors.

“Now that this is forefront, it’s a great conversation to have with the group, and I’ll do exactly that,” Jaffe said. “I’ll agendize the item and have a conversation with north county principals regarding that.”

Jaffe said there are three or four CIF sections in San Diego County. The north county region encompasses all high schools north of Scripps Ranch, which includes Poway, San Marcos, Vista, Escondido, Oceanside, Carlsbad, San Dieguito and other communities.

Jaffe said his first meeting with the CIF group is this week, Sept. 9. He said he will share the AAP study with the group as background reading material to discuss at a future meeting.

“David will advocate for the changes that he needs to help support his school site, as well as our district,” Viloria said.

“I think it’s a really important topic,” Jaffe said.

Not far enough

Flexible start times may be a noble goal, but it doesn’t go far enough. The district’s board – which has historically been silent on the issue, if not downright hostile – needs to take the lead on this.

Trustees should make it clear that they at last recognize the conclusive body of evidence showing that later start times are a critical ingredient for higher academic achievement and student health and well-being.

San Diego County superintendent Randy Ward could – and should – take a leadership role on this topic as well, directing all county middle and high schools to implement start times no earlier than 8:30 a.m., as recommended by the AAP. But as of press time, Ward has not responded to a call last week for a statement on this issue.

According to SDUHSD’s website, start times at the district’s four high schools currently are: 7:40 a.m. at Torrey Pines, 8 a.m. at Canyon Crest Academy, 7:50 a.m. at San Dieguito Academy, and 7:40 a.m. at La Costa Canyon.

Start times for middle schools are: 8:30 a.m. at Carmel Valley, 7:40 a.m. at Earl Warren, 8:30 a.m. at Diegueno, and 7:40 a.m. at Oak Crest.

Start times at Torrey Pines many years ago were once an outrageous 7:15 a.m.

Determined parents, armed with petitions and solid research, pleaded with trustees to move the start time later, while special interests lobbied to maintain the status quo.

Trustees offered a compromise, voting to move the start time to 7:45 a.m. Disappointed parents wanted 8:15 a.m. but settled for a measly 30 minutes after a long-fought effort that left them drained of energy and battle-fatigued.

Torrey Pines now starts at 7:40 a.m.

Canyon Crest had an 8:15 a.m. start time until 2010 when school leaders and parents met quietly and decided to move the start time back to 8 a.m.

Ostensibly, this was because of traffic issues, but the impetus behind this effort was clearly sports. If traffic was really the driving force (so to speak), the group would have moved the time forward to 8:30 a.m.

The over-riding factor was that the 3:15 p.m. release time forced student-athletes to miss too much of their fourth-period classes in order to arrive at their athletic events on time.

Despite the evidence, the board voted 5-0 to support the decision. One board member thought so little of the matter that she didn’t even want it discussed, proclaiming the request “totally reasonable.”

Canyon Crest now starts at 8 a.m.

Indisputable facts

Research indicates that students at schools that start at 8:30 or 9 a.m. are more alert and attentive, perform better academically, test better, have more positive attitudes, are happier, have fewer delinquency and behavioral problems, have decreased rates of illness and tardies, and are less likely to engage in risky behavior after school since school ends later in the afternoon.

Some students do well with early start times, certainly, but decades of overwhelming evidence has proven decisively that the majority of teens would reap significant benefit from later start times and more morning sleep. And that includes student-athletes.

Early bedtimes and early morning risings are scientifically shown to be difficult for teens. Delaying school start times is the single, simplest action schools can take to improve student achievement.

“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 in the AAP report. Owens is the lead author of the policy statement “School Start Times for Adolescents” published in the Sept. 2014 issue of Pediatrics.

“The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and well-being of our nation’s youth,” she said.

Yet no amount of proven scientific data seems able to convince reluctant education leaders to take a firm stand on this.

This public health issue can only be addressed when courageous leaders find the political will to enact sensible education policy and make a simple change in a system resistant to change that puts student health and academic interests first.

Flexible start times are a beginning. Good for San Dieguito staff. At least it gets the conversation going. A mandate from the board is now what’s needed to give the effort some muscle.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.

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