Some 86 percent of the nation’s high schools start before 8:30 a.m.
That means that during the winter months, the majority of U.S. high schoolers head to school while it’s still dark outside. They’re getting up in the predawn hours to get ready, and most are doing it after getting much less than the recommended eight to nine hours of sleep.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), insufficient sleep in adolescents is “an important public health issue.” The AAP has gone so far as to recommend that middle and high schools investigate moving start times later.
“Although many changes over the course of adolescence can affect the quality and quantity of sleep, one of the most salient and, arguably, most malleable is that of school start times,” the paper said, adding that many studies show that early start times stop middle and high school students from getting sufficient sleep. “Studies comparing high schools with start times as little as 30 minutes earlier versus those with later start times demonstrate such adverse consequences as shorter sleep duration, increased sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, behavior problems and absenteeism.”
Across the country, a growing number of schools are investigating the possibility, and now the Liverpool Central School District is the only district in Central New York to take on the issue. A volunteer committee made up of parents, students, and community volunteers will look at a variety of scientific information suggesting that schools — especially high schools — start later, and examine the impact such a change could have on issues like babysitting, sports and transportation.
“If we change our high school start times to later and our elementary start times to slightly earlier and to all the same time, how will it affect our programs?” asked Superintendent Dr. Mark Potter. “How will it affect our student academics? Our intent is to look at our district and determine, if the science is that compelling, should we implement it here? What will it do to our busing, to our students working with BOCES, to our babysitting? There are a lot of implications. Would it be beneficial? It’s a very broad-based, grassroots look.”
Liverpool takes the lead
Liverpool’s investigation into the sleep question began in 2014, when Potter assigned a cohort of five Liverpool teachers to study the issue as part of an OCM BOCES Central New York Leadership Development Program (CNYLDP). The cohort, made up of Elmcrest Elementary third grade teacher Jamie Durgey, Liverpool High School special education teacher Jennifer Fragola, LHS Spanish teacher Amy Pento, Liverpool Middle School science teacher Barbara Salvagni and LHS biology teacher Maura White, began by doing what any teacher would do — they did their homework.
“It was new to all of us, so we had to do our research,” Fragola said.
“We were curious. None of us were strong advocates or opponents in the beginning,” Pento said. “We all kind of came along together.”
But the more research the group did, the more they came to believe moving to a later start time was the right move.
“The evidence is undeniable if you let yourself read it all,” Pento said. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
The group’s research, which included studies from the University of Minnesota, the journal Sleep Medicine and the Swedish Brain Foundation, cited numerous consequences from lack of sleep in teens, including increased obesity, hypertension, risk of stroke, nonmedical use of stimulants, cognitive deficits, increased vulnerability to stress, decreased motivation, deficits in abstract thinking, increased risk of depression, lower academic achievement, poor school attendance and increased dropout rate.
Teens who don’t get enough sleep are also more likely to exhibit “increased risk-taking behaviors,” according to the AAP. Pento said this includes criminal activity, as kids tend to get in more trouble at 3 p.m.
“There’s a spike in crime at 3 p.m., a spike in sexual assaults at 3 p.m. They commit and are victims of crime,” she said. “There will always be an after-school. If they know they have three hours vs. 45 minutes, they might try more risky behavior. If you switch that to the morning, they’re going to sleep instead of get up to commit a crime.”
Looking at other districts
The cohort noted that, in Glens Falls, which moved its start times from 7:45 a.m. to 8:26 a.m. in 2012, student tardiness and absenteeism dropped significantly, as did the number of students failing courses, according to an article on PostStar.com, which serves Glens Falls, Saratoga and Lake George.
The cohort also did a site visit at East Syracuse Minoa High School, which has started at 8:55 a.m. since the 1970s.
“Because that’s the way it’s always been for us, we don’t have the comparison you might see in other school districts. But when we talk to our students, they like our start time,” said ESM Superintendent Dr. Donna DeSiato. “Their parents, who oftentimes are former students, like it. They’re aware of the scientific research supporting it. And our observations are in alignment with the research. Students require a certain number of hours of sleep. Based on the changes they’re going through in their systems, they don’t fall asleep until later in the evening. Having this later start, we believe, does help them overall.”
DeSiato said the later start time isn’t without its challenges. The district does have to make accommodations for athletes’ games and practices, particularly since all other area districts start playing earlier in the day.
“We pay attention to that,” DeSiato said. “There are some sports or activities, like golf, that are very difficult to play in the dark, so we’re mindful of that. If those students have a study hall, we make sure it’s at the end of the day so they’re not missing any core subjects or any area of content. We’re mindful of taking a look at any of those aspects that could be impacted. They’re very few, and we address them through paying attention to the scheduling.”
DeSiato said she was interested to see whether Liverpool ended up changing its start times and how it affected the district’s programming.
“No matter what the challenges are, recent studies suggest we should do whatever it takes to make it happen,” she said. “A good night’s sleep and a good breakfast are so important to student learning. We want all students to get them. As educators, we preach it on a regular basis. We have to take a careful look at the research. It has definite benefits to student learning overall.”
‘No legitimate other side’
Of course, not everyone thinks it’s such a good idea. Opponents point to interference with sports games and practices, after-school jobs, childcare for younger children, parents’ work schedules, younger kids’ sleep schedules, bus transportation and the potential for safety issues as barriers to shifting start times.
But Stacy Simera, outreach director for the Ohio-based national nonprofit Start School Later, said none of those arguments hold water.
“There isn’t a legitimate other side,” Simera said. “According to the experts, the triad of health is sleep, nutrition and physical activity. No legitimate ground has been found on the other side of good nutrition, no pros and cons, other than the myths. It’s the same with exercise. With school start times, there is no actual argument that says it is worse for kids. There is no argument that it is bad for health or learning. The only barriers are that the times are inconvenient for adults, and the myths, which have been proven to be myths in study after study.”
Among the most common myths is the notion that kids will just go to bed later. But Simera said studies have found teens whose schools start later go to bed at the same time.
“They get more sleep on the other end,” Simera said.
Simera said, in addition, she’s talked to several coaches and athletic directors after the changes have taken place who acknowledged that the later start times weren’t as traumatic as they feared.
“Most schools will find a way to protect sports,” Simera said. “And smart coaches now that kids need sleep. Athletes who get enough sleep are less likely to get injured. There’s a 68 percent difference in injuries.”
While the reasons to move to a later start time may be compelling, Liverpool doesn’t want to be too quick to make the shift. That’s what the task force is for — to investigate all of the possible pros and cons to changing its start times.
“We have to make sure all of the stakeholders are involved and they all know what’s going on,” Fragola said. “We have to look at all of the issues.”
But for her part, Pento is convinced that Liverpool should move its start times.
“Regardless of academic improvement, the mental and physical harm, now and future, is undeniable,” Pento said. “I think soon we will think about sleep like we think about concussions. Years ago, it was ‘suck it up.’ Now we know a concussion is nothing to fool with. I think we’ll say the same with sleep.”
To learn more about joining Liverpool’s Modified Start Times Committee, email SGrier@liverpool.k12.ny.us.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.