If, as the science says, teens are more alert and healthier when they sleep later, why haven't more high schools adjusted their start times? The answer to that question lies in a mix of logistics and politics.
"It was, as it's been in every other town, polarizing," recalls Lisa Bogan, a former school board member in Wilton, Conn., which changed its start times in 2003. She is now the school start time change specialist (yes, there is such a position) for the League of Women Voters of Connecticut. The state league embraces efforts to change school start times because it sees them as a way to improve communities that is both nonpartisan and research-based, Bogan says.
Changing school schedules also changes transportation and child care arrangements, Bogan says. As such a change was discussed in Wilton, she says, she listened to a lot of "anticipatory fears" about young children waiting for buses alone on dark winter mornings and about the death of sports. "It is a very emotional issue. It can affect your family life," she says.
Most districts use a single bus service for their elementary, middle and high schools. Traditionally, the high school students start and end their school days earliest. When districts move high school start times later, they generally make the elementary grades start earlier. Younger kids don't have to fight biology to wake up bright and early. The change in circadian rhythms happens around puberty. When Juneau, Alaska, flipped high school and elementary start times, however, the move was especially unpopular among parents who relied on their high school-aged children to mind younger siblings after school. Under the new schedule, elementary school children arrive home first.
A Day in the Life ...
They'll have better attendance, wreck fewer cars and be more agreeable. All we have to do is let high school students sleep in. Our Colleen Shaddox shadows high school student Ethan Boroson for one day in "A Day in the Life of a Sleepy Student."
When school schedules are changed, transportation costs often become an issue; new bus routes and schedules can require a district to put more buses on the road. In Juneau, though, the change cost nothing. And when Denver offered flexible schedules in some of its high schools, the city gave students passes to take public transportation. Denver actually saved money by using public buses to transport students, according to district spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong. But as transit passes have gone up in price, she says, the savings have become more modest.
When start times are pushed back for high schoolers, after-school activities also become a concern. Sports practices go later and might require lighted fields. But Bogan says there have been relatively few athletics-related problems in Wilton, which is located in the geographical center of an athletic conference, minimizing travel time to games. And if the Wilton Warriors are a few minutes late to an away game, "they wait for us," Bogan says.
When Juneau explored later start times for high schoolers, the hearings brought out more parents than any issue except drug testing for athletes, school district spokesperson Kristin Bartlett says. After-school jobs have been a particular issue, she says. Many students have part-time work with the state government in Alaska's capital. But state offices close at 4:30 p.m., leaving little time for a student who's out of school at 3:45 p.m. to get to work.
A survey of Juneau parents during the first year of the change, 2009-10, showed that most elementary parents favored the new schedule, while high school parents were split down the middle. Juneau is going to stay with the schedule at least through the 2010-11 school year, analyzing data on everything from truancy to activity participation. The district wants to separate the real effects of the change, Bartlett says, from what is simply "people not liking change."