Most high schools begin day earlier than docs recommend

Even as more and more research points to the benefits of later high school start times, very few dis
Assistant Principal Craig Forth greets students at Mechanicville Jr./Sr. High School in this Feb. 27, 2015 photo.
Assistant Principal Craig Forth greets students at Mechanicville Jr./Sr. High School in this Feb. 27, 2015 photo.

Even as more and more research points to the benefits of later high school start times, very few districts in the Capital Region have shifted to the start time recommended by the nation’s pediatricians.

As students return to school this week, most high schools in the region sill start class well before 8 a.m.

Of over 20 districts in the region, Schenectady is the only one to start at 8:30 — the earliest middle and high school start time recommended in a 2014 position paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Besides three districts that start at 8 or 8:05 a.m., most start between 7:30 and 7:45.

First bell

Here’s a look at what time some high schools around the region start school:

Schenectady — 8:30

Glens Falls — 8:26

Middleburgh — 8:05

Amsterdam — 8:00


Richmondvile — 7:45

Niskayuna — 7:40

Mohonasen — 7:38

Shaker – 7:34

Guilderland — 7:30

Start times from district websites

A growing body of research suggests that as adolescents move through puberty, their natural sleep habitats cause them to go to bed and wake up later. But school start times usually have high school students starting earlier than their elementary counterparts, leaving first periods and homerooms across the country full of groggy students.

“Early school start times . . . are preventing many adolescents from getting the sleep they need,” said Anne Wheaton, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when the agency released data last year that suggested a vast majority of school districts started high school too early.

The CDC report concluded that 75 percent or more of schools in over 40 states started earlier than the time recommended by the pediatrics academy. Physicians recommend high school-aged kids receive more than eight hours of sleep each night; but just as they enter high schools that start as early as 7:30 a.m., adolescent bodies naturally want to stay up later.

Two-thirds of high school students get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep on school nights, which increases risks that students suffer depression, perform poorly in school and don’t get adequate exercise.

For school districts, however, changing school start times threatens to unleash a cascade of consequences, ranging from transportation problems, athletic conflicts and child care challenges for parents.

But officials in the small handful of local districts that have made the change in recent years said they could never go back, citing improvement in student attendance, punctuality and attitudes. Schenectady High School moved to its 8:30 start time few years ago, in the early days of Superintendent Larry Spring’s tenure. Spring said he wished the district had done a better job of accounting for how the change would make it more difficult for parents to find child care options for their younger kids, adding that the district is committed to trying to provide after-school programs at all the elementary schools.

“The research is pretty clear around adolescence and sleep,” Spring said. “We are proud that we have a later start time, and we are wondering when we will be seeing more and more schools move that way.”

Glens Falls City Schools moved to an 8:30 start time five years ago. As a “walking district” that only buses students with special needs, Glens Falls had the benefit of not having to deal with the transportation fallout of switching to an earlier start time.

‘Change is difficult’

For other districts, however, switching the high school start time could mean paying to add routes and drivers or switch elementary start times earlier.

“It certainly was not well received by everyone, because change is difficult,” Glens Falls Superintendent Paul Jenkins said in an interview last week. “The one thing that was the biggest concern for people was the unknown.”

Jenkins said concerns that student-athletes would miss more time on game days or that practices and home games would be pushed late into the evening never came true. He said the school’s game times have remained the same as before the change and that teams can often make it to away games without leaving school early.

Ultimately, overcoming logistical hurdles was a small price to pay for giving students much needed time to sleep in a little later, Jenkins said. And those challenges have faded into the background with time as the benefits of the start time change continue to persist for students.

“The biggest thing is that the benefits far outweigh the challenges. . . . The challenges we have are really adult challenges, they aren’t challenges for kids,” Jenkins said. “Districts need to look at it hard and find ways they can overcome or get around the challenges they have. We are here to do what’s best for kids, and we know allowing them more time in the morning is going to be beneficial health-wise and academically.”

The idea of delaying the high school start time has come up during recent Niskayuna school board meetings, but the district has yet to formally begin any consideration of such a change. Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said a change like that would be vetted through a stakeholder committee and fully aired during public meetings — a process he said would take months.

“We’ve not done nearly enough research looking into it to say it would be a good move or a bad move,” Tangorra said last week. “I can’t say with any certainty when we will have that conversation, but I get the feeling we will have it.”

A close look

Pamela Thacher, a clinical psychologist and professor at St. Lawrence University, studied Glens Falls’ transition to the later start time. She and a co-researcher, Serge Onyper, collected data about student sleep patterns, attendance, behavior and academic performance both before and after the district changed the high school start time.

The researchers, who published their findings in a scholarly journal earlier this year, concluded that with the new start time high school students arrived late to school an average of three fewer days than before the change and had fewer behavioral problems.

“That was a significant change statistically and administrators experienced that as a huge improvement,” Thacher said in an interview. “For some students, it made a profound difference in their ability to engage with school.”

While the researchers didn’t find any significant changes in academic or mental health outcomes, Thacher said the benefits of less tardiness and fewer behavioral problems were substantial. She said the study’s “absent, more modest, or mixed” findings on attendance, mental and physical health outcomes didn’t deter her support for later start times.

Despite an initial blip of longer sleep time, the Glens Falls students ultimately returned to the same amount of sleep as before the start time change. But those student sleep windows extended later into the morning and better matched student sleep preferences. Thacher said — while not directly studied — the later sleep window likely improved student sleep quality. “My hypothesis is that the later shift in sleep time may simply suit them better,” she said.

Other studies have demonstrated instances of longer and better sleep, better attendance, increased motivation and some examples of stronger academic performance. Anecdotal reports have even suggested that later start times lead to fewer car accidents for students.

“As far as I know all of the studies show benefits,” she said. “No school districts had an easy time doing it, but they have all kept their start times and they have publicly and privately endorsed their decision…. The benefits are real and these benefits persist.”

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