Sleep researcher criticizes Spokane Public Schools start-time proposals.

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One of the nation’s leading sleep researchers says Spokane Public Schools has “the biology backward” in the district’s proposals for new school start times.

The board of Spokane’s largest school district is looking at starting high schools at 8 a.m.; elementary schools at 8:30 a.m.; and middle schools at 9 a.m. Another option is to swap the middle- and elementary-school start times.

“But the older kids get, the later they want to go to bed and the later they want to get up,” said Hans Van Dongen, director of Washington State University’s Sleep and Performance Research Center. He thinks elementary-school students should start first and high-school students should start last.

“Some see this as lazy, but it’s not,” said Van Dongen, who has been studying sleep for 20 years. “Teens and adults tend to have a later biological clock.”

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Shelley Redinger, superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, said “there are too many moving parts” to make high-school start times later — such as after-school athletics and bus schedules.

Spokane plays sports against other school districts in the region, none of which is considering a schedule change.

“We’re not in a position where we can say, ‘We’re sorry. You go to Spokane Public Schools so you can’t play sports,’ ” Redinger said.

Steven Gering, the district’s chief academic officer, said, “A reality we can’t ignore is we are part of a larger system.”

Van Dongen said by scheduling the school day the way America does, with academics early and sports later, the outcome is “we are favoring one aspect over another.”

Research shows that later school start times result in improved academics, behavior, attendance and sleep patterns.

Yet the improvement often isn’t dramatic.

When the Minneapolis School District high-school start times were changed from 7:15 to 8:40 a.m., there was “a slight improvement in grades overall, but the differences were not statistically significant,” according to a University of Minnesota study. College aptitude tests offered little measure because the students who take those tests often are good at school anyway.

A study that split up North Carolina middle-school students with half starting at an earlier time showed those students scored about 2 percentile points lower on state assessment tests.

“It’s not like you are seeing test scores going from 30 to 75 percent,” said Jeff Bierman, Spokane Public Schools’ board president. “If it was, the conversation would be different.”

Spokane school officials point out that the district’s high school-start time is 8 a.m.

And they say all children, not just adolescents, would do better with more sleep.

A study done by the University of Kentucky that looked at 718 elementary-school start times backs their assertion.

“Our findings indicate that early school start times may be just as detrimental for young children as they are for adolescents,” the report says. “The relationship between earlier start times and poorer academic performance may be explained by the physical, behavioral and psychological ramifications of sleep deprivation.”

Bierman said the Spokane district hadn’t considered changing school start times for any grades until deciding to add 30 minutes to the elementary-school day. About the same time, the American Pediatric Society came out with its recommendation that students should start school at 8:30 a.m. or later, which piqued the School Board’s interest in getting more information.

“We weren’t necessarily concerned, but we needed to know more,” Bierman said. “We didn’t want to ignore that sleep-research information as we considered the bell schedule.”

Van Dongen points out that sleep is not only important for success in school, but also for overall health, the primary reason for the American Pediatric Society’s recommendation. Experts recommend children and adolescents get nine to 10 hours a night.

Dr. Judith Owens, a pediatrician and director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center, said in the American Pediatric Society’s recommendation, “Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public-health issues in the U.S. today.”

Children who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or depressed, and have higher grades and test scores, she said. “Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”