Last year when she was a freshman at Seattle’s Ingraham High School, Claire Noble-Randall had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. and catch two Metro buses to arrive in time for first-period chemistry.
Ingraham starts at 8 a.m., but she often didn’t get to sleep until after midnight.
Noble-Randall chose Ingraham over a school closer to her Wallingford neighborhood because of Ingraham’s International Baccalaureate program, but she paid for it in sleep deprivation. “It was really hard not to fall asleep in class,” she said.
Her mom solved the problem this year when she discovered that other Wallingford parents had hired a private city tour bus to take their children to the school.
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“Now she leaves the house at a much more sane (time) — say 7:10 in the morning … to catch the little tour bus at 7:23 a.m.,” said her mother, Noelle Noble.
That may be one way to ease the sleep crunch, but more than 3,300 people have signed an online petition seeking a more comprehensive solution from the Seattle school district: that it start no high school or middle school before 8:30 a.m. Most of Seattle’s high schools and middle schools start at 8 a.m. or earlier.
Later school-start times for teens is an idea that some parents around the Puget Sound area and the nation have been pushing for years, backed by mounting scientific evidence that teens tend to be biological night owls and delayed start times improve their health, mood, attendance and, in some cases, learning.
Yet making the change happen is often so logistically and politically complicated, affecting other legitimate interest groups, that only about 70 school districts around the country have figured out a way to do it.
Local advocates are pushing again, and this time they’ve got Seattle School Board President Sharon Peaslee, herself the mother of two high-school students, on their side.
She hopes her fellow board members will this month pass her resolution calling on the district to figure out a way to make the changes by fall 2015.
The last time the School Board took up the issue, in 2008-2009, parents of elementary-school students objected to swapping their later start times with older students because they didn’t want little kids waiting for the bus in the dark.
Other districts that have attempted to delay start times for teens have also run into opposition, including from coaches who don’t want late dismissals cutting into sports practices, community groups that don’t want to wait later for gyms and fields as well as before- and after-school programs that don’t want to change their schedules.
The Issaquah School District, for example, spent two years trying to figure out how to reconcile competing interests before deciding to leave the bell times alone.
After years of failed attempts, the largest school district in Virginia has hired consultants led by medical experts who are optimistic that this time they’ll succeed.
Scientists are lending their support to the Seattle effort as well, including Vishesh Kapur, founder of the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center and one of more than 20 local sleep experts who endorse later start times for teens.
“There are very few things in education policy that you can get down to a biological level and have relatively good data about what an education policy change might cause. This is one of them,” he said.
Researchers have long known that getting enough sleep is essential to good health.
Chemical messengers tell our bodies how long it’s been since we last slept, building up pressure for sleep as the day goes on. We also have a master clock deep inside the brain that receives light signals from our eyes and orients our sleep cycles to night and day.
These rhythms not only tell us when to go to sleep, but also what times of the day we typically feel most alert — whether we’re morning people or night owls.
In adolescence, something happens that pushes teenagers closer to the owl type, typically by about an hour. They appear to be more alert later in the day, and it’s harder for them to fall asleep. But once they do, they still need about nine or more hours of sleep.
One of the most persuasive studies on school-start times shows that learning can suffer when teens take classes before they’re fully awake.
In Colorado, researchers tracked what happened to the grades of freshmen cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, based on what time of day they took required courses.
They found generally that students randomly assigned to courses later in the day performed better than those taking first-period classes.
Researchers also found that moving the academy’s start time from 7 to 7:50 a.m. improved academic performance by 3 percentage points, an unusually large effect for an education change.
It showed that
“the time of day that students are expected to function, or their brains are expected to function, really matters,” said Teny Maghakian, one of the co-authors of the 2010 University of California, Davis study, who now teaches economics at Santa Clara University.
But it takes more than sound science and policy research to change a whole community’s daily schedule, and perhaps no district understands that as well as Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.
It’s been trying for more than a decade to delay its start times.
Virginia district’s effort
Last April, officials in the Fairfax district hired a consultant group called Smart School Start to find a way to push high-school start times past 8 a.m.
The group is co-directed by one of the leading researchers in children and sleep, Dr. Judith Owens, director of Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Medical Center, based in Washington, D.C.
Her team has met with more than 45 different groups representing everyone who might object to a later start times.
“Maybe we’re hopelessly naive, but we’re hoping that this time around the combination of the science, leadership, the ability of groups to be heard, to voice their concerns, will carry this out,” Owens said.
The district is the 11th largest in the country, deploying more than 1,520 buses that carry 110,000 students each day.
“If Fairfax County can do it — with the size and the diversity and the geographical distances that students have to commute — then there’s no excuse for any other school district in the country not to,” Owens said.
That’s the kind of work Seattle would have to do, but the district could decide it’s just too difficult to pull off.
Just ask the nearby Issaquah district, which convened a committee in 2003 to study the issue but couldn’t find a solution to the logistical issues, elementary-school start times or the conflicts with other school activities.
“They met for two years and they studied that issue from every angle and in the final analysis, they recommended that no changes be made to the start times,” said Lorraine Michelle, the district’s executive director of communications.
Momentum is growing in Seattle for new bell times.
A local chapter of a national advocacy organization, Start School Later, has brought together educators, parents and local sleep scientists in support of the idea. The Seattle Council of Parent, Teacher and Student Associations and the Washington State PTA also endorse later starts.
Last week, the Seattle School Nurses Association passed a resolution calling for secondary schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
Also last week, teachers at Ballard High School voted in favor of a later start time. Roosevelt High School staff passed a similar resolution in October.
A few Seattle high schools already start later, including Nathan Hale, which pushed its start time back by an hour in 2003 and now starts at 8:30 a.m.
But it had to give up yellow-bus service to do it. Eventually, the district shifted most of its high-school transportation to Metro city buses.
The district is streamlining its school-bus service again to reflect the change from a school-assignment system based on choice that bused students all over the city to one based on neighborhood schools.
Michael Vitiello, an expert on aging and sleep at the University of Washington, spoke out in favor of Nathan Hale’s schedule change in 2003 and he supports the renewed districtwide effort now.
“Because the science is so overwhelming and the potential upside is so great, this is something that we clearly owe the secondary students of the Seattle school district,” Vitiello said.
John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @jhigginsST