April 21, 2014 by

Students Raise Alarms Over Later Start Times

Later Start TimesBy Sarah McKibben

It’s not often that you hear of teenagers turning down an opportunity to sleep in, but that’s exactly what happened in upstate New York. When teachers and the assistant principal of Glens Falls High School brought up the idea of starting school 45 minutes later, students rebelled—in a big way.

Glens Falls assistant principal Elizabeth Collins says the conversation began in 2010 when staff members were studying the teenage brain. “We were seeing a common theme about wellness as an important component” and realized the effect that sleep (or a lack thereof) can have on learning, says Collins. Changing the high school’s start time from 7:45 to 8:32 a.m. “seemed like a no-brainer.”

Collins formed a committee of key stakeholders, surveyed students and staff, and developed solutions to challenges such as transportation and sports. Although students showed an initial interest in the proposal, when the school forged ahead, the tone changed.

Sleep expert Helene Emsellem, who was brought in to educate the community about the biology of teen sleep, says students “were in an uproar.” A very vocal group believed that by starting later, “they were going to be thought of as a weak school.”

Collins explains that ironically, “the most outspoken students were the high-achieving, athletically involved students who were clearly very sleep deprived.”

Under pressure and “maxed out,” Collins believes the “students figured out a system that was working for them” and the idea of “reconfiguring their personal schedule” was overwhelming. “They were rationalizing why it wasn’t going to work.”

The students organized a rally outside the school and contacted the local news media to share their concerns. Athletes worried that if school was dismissed at 3:00, they would have to leave class early to participate in sports. Others feared that they would have to practice in the dark.

The committee addressed those concerns and kept to its message. “We easily came back with solutions to what were identified as major issues,” says Collins. “Our whole platform was ‘this is what is best for the students.’ The research and medical data support this change. How can we not do this for our students?”

Despite the committee’s outreach campaign, some parents also expressed opposition. “The thing about this topic is that everybody personalizes it to their own routine,” says Collins. “The families who could do one drop-off [at the middle and high school] were psyched. The families who worked early, not so much. Everybody looked at it from their own perspective.”

After gaining narrow approval from the school board, Glens Falls pushed back its start time in the fall of 2012. The district teamed up with St. Lawrence University researcher Pamela Thacher to collect data before and after the transition, and so far, the results have been promising.

Students are now getting anywhere between 12 and 48 more minutes of sleep each night, depending on the grade level. Data show that the high school’s tardy rate has decreased, the number of students passing courses has increased, discipline referrals have dropped, and students are reporting less depression and anxiety.

What has stood out most for Collins, however, is the overall change to the “mood of the building,” which is most visible in the morning. Students and teachers are no longer frantically trying to make it in on time. “It’s more of a normal flow into the building,” she says. “It’s not so manic; people are happier.”

Although all of the progress might not be linked directly to a later start time, Collins acknowledges that “it’s definitely a major contributing factor.”

As the second year of the change comes to a close, the school continues to share data with families from the St. Lawrence University sleep study. But what no one could have predicted was how much of a non-issue the transition would become.

“Two years later, it’s like [the start time has] always been at 8:32,” says Collins. “It’s not talked about at all now.”

For more on school start times, check out the article “Wake-Up Call” in the April issue of Education Update.

Sarah McKibben is the managing editor of ASCD’s member newsletter, Education Update. Prior to joining ASCD, she was an editor for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Printing Industries of America, where she coauthored the Web-2-Print Primer.