Virginia Schools: Fairfax County Schedule Change

Virginia Schools: Fairfax County Schedule Change
As Fairfax County considers pushing back their start time for high schools, we’ll look at the potential benefits of later start times on student achievement.

Fairfax County, along with other school districts across the country, is considering a scheduling change that would allow high school students to head to class a bit later in the morning. While studies seem to support the idea of pushing back high school start times, the issue is a complex one that involves carpools, bus schedules, and after-school activities. Would a major rearrangement of high school schedules be worth the effort?

School Board Member Pushes for Later Start Times in Fairfax

The Washington Times reports that the driving force behind later start times in Fairfax County is school board member Sandy Evans. Evans co-founded Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP) in 2004, and she has been advocating for a new schedule in her county since that time.

“It is beneficial to their physical health, their mental health, and their academic health,” Evans told the Washington Times. “This [early schedule] just can’t be good for teenagers,” Evans added.

Evans is not alone in her concern over sleep deprivation in teens today. Nearby Montgomery County has also formed a work group to study the impact of later start times in high school performance. The study was in response to a petition signed by more than 10,000 parents who want to see the county move the start time at high schools from 7:25 to at least 8:15. However, the county does not appear as quick to institute that type of change, since a new start time would affect bus routes and after-school jobs and activities.

Evans says her county is also considering the move to a later start time for high school students, but has yet to take action. Even plans to hire a consultant to study the issue have fallen short thus far. However, the Fairfax board does hope to have a report completed by this spring that will give them the facts they need to make a final decision on school start times.

This TEDTalk touts the benefits of a later start to the school day.

Do Later Start Times Mean Higher Grades?

While data to date on the correlation between later school schedules and academic performance remains scant, studies that have been completed studying sleep and student performance boast mostly positive results. The Sleep Foundation reported on a study conducted by Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom at the University of Minnesota, which found more sleep did seem to translate to higher student achievement. Dr. Wahlstrom gathered the data for her study when the Minnesota Public School District changed the start times at seven high schools from 7:15 to 8:40 a.m.

Dr. Wahlstrom found that when high school students got five or more hours of sleep each week, their academic performance did improve. The study also found that the later start times improved student attendance, enrollment, and daytime alertness of students while decreasing reports of student depression.

This video reports on improvement in performance when school starts later.

In another study conducted in Rhode Island and reported in Psychology Today, researchers found that a later start time allowed high school students to get more sleep each night. It also improved attendance overall and decreased the number of visits by students to the school health centers. Teachers at the Rhode Island schools also noted that students’ moods appeared to improve with the additional sleep. In Kentucky, later school start times not only translated to more sleep for students, it also meant a lower incidence of car accidents involving teen drivers.

The Huffington Post reports on a study conducted by Colby College economist Finley Edwards. Edwards launched his research in Wake County, North Carolina, after watching his younger sister arrive at the bus stop in the mornings before the sun was up. Edwards released his finding to the Harvard journal “Education Next,” which showed that later start times promote more sleep and significantly higher test scores. Middle school students in Wake County improved standardized test scores by 2.2 points in math and 1.5 points in reading with a start time one hour later. Increases were even higher for high school students.

Edwards also discovered that later start times meant students spent nine more minutes on homework and 12 fewer minutes watching television each day. Edwards also found that later start times improved attendance rates, with students reporting 1.3 fewer absences than other students.

“Start times really do matter,” Edwards told the Huffington Post. “We can see clear increases in academic performance just from starting school later.”

The Teenage Sleep Cycle

While it is true most teens do not get sufficient shut-eye, another factor appears to be a the crux of the sleep debate as well. The Washington Times reports that according to the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota when teenagers sleep is just as important as how much sleep they get. Since 1996, numerous studies by the group have found that melatonin, the sleep-inducing chemical in the brain, is secreted in teens between the hours of 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. This means that teenagers that sleep the most during these hours will feel the most alert throughout the school day.

This video discusses teens and sleep.

For parents that have seen the natural tendency of teens to go to bed and rise later, the research results may not constitute big news. However, getting science to back up the idea that teenagers work better in the later morning hours may encourage more schools to take notice of the benefits of later start times. At this point, many schools are still grappling with a myriad of variables as they consider new high school schedules. Perhaps as more data is reported on the benefits of later high school start times, more schools will put forth the effort for new school scheduling.

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