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School Start Times

When early school start times were imposed in the 1970s, we didn’t know all of the negative effects they would have on our kids. But after decades of research, we have a treasure trove of facts. Early middle and high school start times are harming our kids’ health, safety, and ability to learn. Our kids have the right to get a healthy amount of sleep. We have a duty to figure out how to give that to them.

On Oct. 10 the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education unanimously voted to allow middle and high schools to shift to later start times as long as the district incurs no costs. This follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Medical Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics policies on healthy school start times.

The health policies of these groups calls on middle and high schools to shift to later start times to allow students to achieve optimal sleep levels—8.5–9.5 hours—in order to cease harming their physical and mental health, safety, academic performance, and quality of life.

We now have a choice to make. We can stick with early start times that we now know have resulted in decreased academic performance, increased rates of physical and mental illness, and even death. Or we can adopt the health policy of every major medical organization in the country and start school at a time that allows our kids to get a healthy amount of sleep.

We now know adolescents experience a shift in their circadian rhythm. The release of the hormone melatonin is delayed until 11 pm, 9 pm for most adults. So it’s almost impossible for the average adolescent to fall asleep much before 11 pm on a regular basis. Teens cannot “make” themselves fall asleep earlier.

We know that during adolescence, rapid growth requires more sleep. To get enough sleep, teens need to set their alarm clocks between 7:30 and 8:30 am. We know that because early school start times do not allow our kids to get the sleep they need, they suffer from chronic sleep loss, which impairs physical and mental health, safety, and learning. Here are some of the effects:

  • Their immune systems suffer
  • They experience more sickness and insulin resistance, increasing their risk for obesity and Type II diabetes
  • They have more anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation
  • They are at higher risk for hypertension and stroke
  • They are 68% more likely to get injured playing sports
  • The drowsy driving rate of teen car crashes increases up to 70%

We also know from 20 years of scientific research that when middle and high schools start between 8:30 and 9:30 am, math test scores increase by 3.3%, reading by 3.7%, and the number of Ds and Fs during first periods drops 20 to 50%.

There are hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S. who go to school from 9 am to 4 pm and are well-rested, participate in sports, and thrive in school. To name a few: Dallas high schools—that have large sports programs—operate from 9 am to 4 pm; Austin, 9 am to 4:30 am; Seattle, 8:55 am to 3:45 pm; and Louden County outside DC, 9:15 am to 4:03 pm.

On Dec. 8 Marshall Middle School teachers and staff voted 68 to 13 to keep the 7:40 am start time as a result of an ill-conceived district process. I believe it is not the job of principals and teachers to create and implement health policy. It is not fair to them.

This problem isn’t going away. Now that we know the harmful effects of early school start times, the onus is on us. A movement has begun. Change is difficult. But if we want to best prepare our kids for the future, as a community we need to figure out how to implement a healthy start time.

Our ongoing efforts include working with the board of education and district leaders to educate and plan pathways forward, as well as gaining support for California Senate Bill 328. If you are interested in learning more and working on this initiative, go to your school’s Site Governance Team meetings, message us via the Start School Later San Diego Facebook page at www.facebook.com/StartSchoolLaterSanDiego, and find information at www.StartSchoolLater.net.

Beth McNeill, PhD, Start School Later San Diego Chapter Co-leader,

Marshall Middle School Parent

Another Perspective

As a parent of two children, as well as a teacher in the Scripps Ranch community for more than 25 years, I have experienced both early and late start times for elementary, middle, and high school. While I support the research regarding adolescent health and the nationwide discussion for a later start time, I understand the needs of the Scripps Ranch community, San Diego community, and San Diego Unified School District.

No matter what the school schedule looks like, there are transportation, child care, and extracurricular activities to consider. Few people would resist shifting the start time a half an hour or 45 minutes later. However, we are offered our current start time of 7:40 am or a new start time of 9:15 or 9:30 am. If we choose the late start time, the school end time would be after 4 pm. This is where I see problems.

After-school activities already affect some of our students’ abilities to attend school for the full day. We regularly have students pulled from class early for sports tournaments, doctors’ appointments, and extracurricular activities. My priority for students is to be in school, to feel welcomed on campus, and to learn as much as possible while here.

Of course there are adult logistical concerns about traffic patterns, children in different schools on vastly different schedules, unattended kids on campus without supervision, and shifting homework to an even later time in the evening. However, my main concern is for the educational opportunities, equitable treatment, and community building for which public school was designed.

Jean Chalupsky, Marshall Middle School Teacher, SR Resident