A Critical Issue: High School Start Times

A Critical Issue: High School Start Times
Posted on 09/23/2019
Norwalk Public Schools logoBy the Norwalk Board of Education

For years, the Norwalk Board of Education conformed to standard practice by focusing almost exclusively on academic growth. However, current research indicates greater academic success can be achieved by focusing on the physical health, as well as the social and emotional needs, of students. We have thus taken steps to ensure these needs are properly addressed in city schools.

An issue that pertains to student health has recently emerged: the start of high school students. Years ago, medical science determined that biological changes take place that among adolescents that alter sleep patterns.  Unfortunately, most school districts ignored the research and high school students continued to start class earlier than middle and elementary students.

Last year, the BOE established a task force to examine this issue. The goal was to rework start times, so they conformed to what is now settled science regarding sleep patterns of adolescents. The task force organized high school student focus groups, as well as elementary and high school parent forums. It also conducted a comprehensive survey. This input informed the committee as it developed its recommendations.

The executive summary captures its overall thrust: “Based on the science and growing understanding of the importance of sleep, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine have all recommended that high school start no earlier than 8:30.” Our current schedule has high school students starting at 7:30.

The report contains a letter from ten local pediatricians that cites the above-mentioned organizations and concludes, “This public health epidemic needs to be taken as seriously as any other health issue…. We recognize that such a structural change may have its challenges but, as pediatricians, we indefatigably advocate for the health and welfare of children and stand in solidarity in support of this initiative for the betterment of our community.”

In a section called “Sleep deprivation in teens is a public health epidemic,” the report states, “While it may be tempting to place blame solely on poor habits such as the use of electronics for teens’ lack of sleep, there is clear evidence that factors out of teens’ control, such as biology and school schedules, play a key role in the health crisis facing today’s teens.”

The report notes, “Sleep deprivation increases the likelihood teens will suffer a wide range of negative consequences, including an inability to concentrate, poor grades, substance abuse, drowsy-driving incidents, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts…. Scientists have learned that around puberty, adolescents’ biological clocks shift later so that it is difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. or wake up before 8 a.m., even when they practice excellent hygiene.”

The report cites studies that show, “Thousands of adolescents have shifted to later school start times and the results show very clearly that, in spite of concerns that teens will simply stay up later, bed times either stay about the same or even shift slightly earlier in some cases.” Moreover, there is substantial evidence that student achievement improves when high school students get more sleep.

The report recommends that our high school start time be moved from 7:30 to 8:30. It recommends keeping our middle school start time at 8:15, and strongly urges that no elementary school start before 8:00 to ensure our youngest students do not wait for buses in the dark. This scenario would cost about $457,000 because five additional buses would be required.

If approved, the board will address a variety of concerns to ensure the start time initiative is smoothly implemented next year. For instance, high school schedules will be examined carefully, with an eye on making sure after-school activities, including sports, are not disturbed. Adjustments may be necessary to ensure out-of-school services are maintained at current levels. We will work to ensure that despite the new dismissal time students will be able to keep their part-time jobs. And we will make sure all before-school activities, especially for elementary students, are maintained. The board plans to address potential traffic issues with city officials.

We will carefully monitor the initiative next year, looking at absentee rates, test scores, a variety of behavioral issues, and other concerns that may emerge during the first year of implementation.

The board plans to hold a public forum on the task force report on October 7, at City Hall, beginning at 7:00.

The full report can be found by clicking here