Seattle Public Schools could become one of the largest districts in the country to push back start times for teens, thanks to parents, sleep scientists and a school board willing to make it a priority.
Few ideas in education are as simple and supported by science as pushing back school start times to better match teens’ biological clocks.
But the logistics of coordinating buses, child care, sports practices, after-school programs and other activities have proved so daunting that only about 70 districts across the nation have managed to make the change.
It wouldn’t be easy for Seattle, either, but after a four-year campaign led by parents, teachers and local sleep scientists, Seattle Public Schools is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether it will become one of the largest districts in the country to start high school at 8:30 a.m. or later, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Proposed start times:
High schools and all but one middle school: 8:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. (Exception is Denny International School, which would start at 7:55 a.m. and end at 2:25 p.m.)
Most elementary schools: 7:55 a.m. to 2:05 p.m. (Exceptions are Adams, APP @ Lincoln, Bailey Gatzert, Hay, Lafayette, Laurelhurst, Loyal Heights, Thurgood Marshall, North Beach, and View Ridge, which would run from 9:35 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.)
K-8 schools: 7:55 a.m.-2:25 p.m. at Broadview-Thomson, Madrona, South Shore. 8:45 a.m.-3:15 p.m. at Licton Springs, Pathfinder, Salmon Bay, Tops and Hazel Wolf. 9:35 a.m.-4:05 p.m. at Catherine Blaine, K-8 STEM at Boren, Orca.
Seattle Public Schools
Under the proposal before the School Board, all the district’s high schools and most of its middle schools would begin at 8:45 a.m., almost an hour later than most do now. With a few exceptions, most elementaries would begin at 7:55 a.m., which is anywhere from 45 minutes to 1½ hours earlier than this year, and most K-8s would start at 7:55 a.m. or 8:45 a.m.
If approved by the School Board, the changes would take effect in fall 2016.
The Wednesday vote will cap almost two years of surveys, task-force reports, community meetings and a 137-page environmental impact study, all aimed at balancing competing needs and interests without increasing the district’s transportation expenses.
Advocates across the country, who have closely watched Seattle’s progress, are hoping for passage.
Seattle could “provide a role model for urban school districts to do the right thing in the interest of student health, safety and well-being and to serve as a beacon to inspire other school districts,” said Dr. Judith Owens, who directs the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Owens was instrumental in helping the 11th-largest school district in the country, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, get later start times for teens last year.
And she’s been emailing Seattle School Board members, urging their support at the behest of her colleague, Dr. Maida Chen, who directs the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
At the Nov. 4 School Board meeting, Chen presented a letter supporting the plan and signed by more than 30 local sleep doctors as well as Owens and Dr. Nathaniel Watson, a University of Washington neurology professor who directs the Harborview Medical Center Sleep Clinic and is president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
“This level of high-profile support is putting Seattle in the national spotlight,” Chen said. “It’s our time to shine.”
Scientists on board
Scientists have long known that in adolescence, teenagers become biological night owls who are more alert later in the day and find it hard to fall asleep at night. Evidence has been mounting for years that later school start times improve their health, mood, attendance and, in some cases, learning.
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Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended last year that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later, only about one-fifth of Washington’s middle and high schools start that late, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 42 states, the report said, 75 to 100 percent of public secondary schools start before 8:30 a.m.
The reasons vary, but often have to do with districts trying to save money by staggering bus schedules, so that one bus can be used for three different routes. And districts also worry about putting elementary school students at bus stops so early that they’re standing in the dark.
But the desire to let teenagers start school later has been growing here and across the nation. Along with Seattle, several other local districts are changing or thinking about changing start times for teens, including Bellevue, Issaquah, Lake Washington, Mercer Island and Northshore.
Last month, for example, the Bellevue School Board unanimously voted to move high-school start times later than the 7:30 a.m. current start, with a goal of eventually having schools start at 8:30 a.m.
A long campaign
The latest effort in Seattle started about four years ago, in part because Cindy Jatul, a biology teacher at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, noticed that her first-period students were frequently absent or late.
She also saw the effect of early start times on her own middle-school daughter.
“Her biological clock shifted and she just had that classic reaction of not being able to fall asleep until 11 or later and getting really stressed and exhausted. I could not understand why she had to start at 8 in the morning at that time at middle school.”
A previous effort to change bell times fizzled in 2008-09 when parents of elementary students objected, but Jatul started meeting with parents and teachers to revive the idea. Then they got local sleep scientists on board.
“The sleep-medicine community in Seattle is very vocal about this issue, so we have people from a lot of major medical institutions who have come forward,” Jatul said.
In March 2014, they succeeded in getting the School Board to start pushing the district administrators to make the change.
“We were responding to pretty organized groups in the community who really wanted to make this happen,” said board member Sharon Peaslee. “I’m the parent of two teens, so I was very much in favor of it right from the very start.”
Effect on elementaries
While the campaign focused on the benefits for high-school students, the morning routine for elementary and K-8 students would change even more. Under the proposal, 21 of those schools would start at 7:55 a.m., compared with 9:30 a.m. this year. (Two are K-8 schools; the rest are elementaries.)
The most outcry, however, has come from parents in some of the 13 elementary and K-8 schools that wouldn’t move earlier, but start five minutes later than this year, at 9:35 a.m.
They have expressed concerns about elementary students not being in school during their optimal learning window and the effect the change would have on after-school activities.
At Laurelhurst Elementary, 78 percent of families surveyed preferred an 8 a.m. start time, according to Laurelhurst PTA President Linda Chou, who spoke at the Nov. 4 School Board meeting.
“For many, many families like ours, it’s an extreme struggle to find before- and after-school care for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon,” Chou said. “It’s just expensive, and it’s hard to find. It’s an additional stress.”
The district has said it will try to move some of those 13 schools to earlier times if it can be done without adding any costs.
Supporters of the proposal say they would prefer that no elementary schools start at 9:35 a.m., but the plan before the board is a good first step in better school start times for all children.
One national advocate says Seattle has approached the school-time change much better than Chicago, where the school district tried to rush through a change last summer without adequately informing parents.
“They had to retract their decision, which was really unfortunate because they were really heading in the right direction,” said Maribel Ibrahim, co-founder of Start School Later, a national nonprofit.
She said Seattle’s shift to later middle- and high-school starts will show other districts that starting later can — and should — be done. “It’s going to really draw the line and say this change is not optional,” Ibrahim said.