Mounting scientific evidence shows that chronic sleep loss compromises teenagers’ learning, health and safety, prompting the American Academy of Pediatrics last month to recommend that middle and high schools start class no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
Yet changing bell times has proven so logistically and politically complicated that only about 70 school districts around the country have figured out a way to do it.
In July, Seattle’s school board waded into those waters, directing the district’s staff to begin a 15-month study to change school starting times. The district is now accepting applications to participate in a year-long task force on that will include district staff, parents, students and community experts. The deadline to apply is Oct. 6.
To appreciate the magnitude of the work involved, Seattle and other interested school districts should check out what’s been going on in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the 11th-largest school district in the country.
Fairfax has been trying to change bell times for more than a decade. The latest push was launched in April, 2012, when the Fairfax board set a goal of having no high school begin before 8 a.m. The board may finally be approaching the finish line with a plan up for a vote on Oct. 23.
To develop its plan, Fairfax hired Children’s National Medical Center’s Division of Sleep Medicine, which published a report in April that examined how the 70 school districts that changed bell times got it done.
The report includes some interesting history about why high schools moved to start times before 8 a.m. in the first place. The cost-cutting trend started in the late 1950s and really got rolling in the 1970s (with some notable exceptions such as Loudon County, Va., which has started its high schools at 9 a.m. since 1954).
The overwhelming majority of modern day bell schedules in American public high schools are historically based on such “adult” considerations as school budgets, transportation logistics, parent work schedules, athletics, staff commute times, and community use of fields and facilities. By and large, districts did not take into consideration the evolving scientific literature on biologically based changes in sleep patterns and circadian rhythms associated with puberty and the evidence linking early school start times with detriments in the health, safety and well-being of students.
The report notes that districts that have succeeded in getting early start times have:
- Received strong and vocal support from superintendents and school boards that work well together and can tap a deep reservoir of public trust.
- Taken enough time to hear from everyone who will be affected by changing start times, especially the students themselves.
- Communicated information to everyone in a timely, accurate and appropriate manner, including translation and interpretation for families who don’t speak English.
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