With back to school just around the corner, the debate over when to start and end school has revved up once again.
As students begin to face the realization that their days of sleeping in are nearly over, school districts continue to debate the benefits of later start times for older students. With plenty of research to back up the idea that teens sleep on a different cycle than many schools allow, districts must once again consider the theory that later start times could mean higher student performance. Would later start times really impact how well high school students learn?
Research Supports Later Start Times
As back-to-school logistics are put into place, research on the benefits of later start times come back into play. There is plenty to choose from in that category – most showing teens that head to class later tend to perform better overall. Unfortunately, coordination of school schedules doesn’t always support allowing teens the later start.
According to a recent report at Times-Union, 40 percent of high schools in the United States start prior to 8:00 a.m. A small minority, 15 percent, start after 8:30 a.m. That minority is often the result of coordination of bus schedules, which tends to favor younger students for the later start times.
Logistics aside, research certainly seems to favor allowing older students to hit the books later. Students in the teen years require just as much sleep as younger children, according to the National Sleep Foundation. That amount can range from 8 ½ to 9 ¼ hours of sleep every night. Decades of studies support this theory, including a Stanford study in the 1970s that showed boys and girls in the teen years, required just as much sleep as younger children.
Changes to sleep patterns and hormonal changes during puberty attribute to the sleepiness in adolescents. Unfortunately, most teens do not get sufficient shut-eye during those critical years, which can lead to performance impairment during the day. Much of their sleep deprivation can be attributed to daily schedules that directly conflict with the natural circadian rhythms of the growing teen.
Minneapolis Schools Demonstrate Benefits of Later School
The website for the University of Minnesota cites research that supports allowing teenagers to start school later as well. The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement studied one school district in the state area that decided to go to later start times in their high schools. Secondary schools in Edina set start times to 8:30 a.m. or later, based on medical research that showed students in this age range naturally went to bed and got up later than their younger counterparts.
The study found that dropout rates improved and fewer incidences of depression were reported among students in Edina. In addition, student performance improved, with students in these districts earning higher grades on average. In addition, the vast majority of high school parents in one of the districts said they preferred the later start times by the end of the year, despite concerns at the beginning of the school year about making the schedule change.
Capitalizing on Edina’s success, Minneapolis tried a similar experiment. According to the Leader-Telegram, this school district had a very different demographic to Edina’s affluent suburban student population. The majority of Minneapolis students came from primarily urban, low-income families.
Despite the demographic differences, Minneapolis students also benefited from the time change, boasting higher graduation rates as more students were able to make it to their early classes. Before that occurred, many students ended up dropping out of school when absences in early classes meant they came out on the short end of their credit requirements. The school system has not gone back to their 7:15 a.m. start times, thanks to the positive results of the later start times.
Other studies have shown that in districts where school start times were later, crash rates among teen drivers was also lower. One study conducted in Virginia Beach, Virginia during the 2006-2007 school year found significantly lower crash rates in a school district with later start times than a nearby district that rang the first bell much earlier. A similar study in Kentucky approximately one decade earlier found crash rates for teen drivers dropped 16.5 percent after school start times were pushed back one hour.
School Districts Reluctant to Change, Despite Benefits
Despite numerous studies showing the benefits of later start times for high school students, many districts across the country are still resistant to the idea of change. Earlier start times could mean complications for bus schedules, which typically must shuttle students to elementary, middle and high schools every morning. In addition, later start times mean later dismissal times, which can wreak havoc with work schedules and a myriad of extra-curricular activities.
One former student from a North Carolina school district with later start times told the Times-Union she would frequently have to miss her last two class periods to make it to matches when she was a member of the tennis team. The student added that there would be nights when she wouldn’t make it home from school and activities until 8:00 p.m.
However, that student and others who follow similar schedules have voiced appreciation over the ability to go to school around the natural cycle of their biological clocks. Studies have supported the change, showing improved academic performance and better mental health for students. Even traffic statistics improved. It seems that with so much data to support the benefits of later start times, more school districts would begin looking at how to schedule older students at later times to give them the greatest possible of odds of success.
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