Most high schools begin their day around 7:30 a.m., which leaves many teenagers nodding off in the morning. In fact, at least 20 percent of high school students fall asleep in class on a typical day. The problem: Teenagers need a lot of sleep — about nine hours each night, experts say. And most of them aren't getting enough.
To help sleepy teens, some school districts have tried delaying the opening of the high school day. Educational researcher Kyla Wahlstrom, from the University of Minnesota, has been following districts that changed their start times, tracking the effect on schools and students. The Minneapolis school district, for example, changed its start time from 7:20 to 8:40 a.m., giving its 12,000 high schoolers an extra hour and twenty minutes each morning. Wahlstrom says the students have benefited from the change.
"Students reported less depression when there was a later starting time," she says. "And teachers reported that students were more alert and ready for learning. Parents reported that their children were easier to live with because their emotions were more regulated."
Additionally, Wahlstrom found a decrease in the number of students who were dropping out of school or moving from school to school.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than 80 school districts around the country have now made the change to start their high schools later. These districts range from large, urban school districts, such as Minneapolis and Denver, to suburban districts, such as Jessamine County in central Kentucky.
In Jessamine County, detailed discussions about starting their high schools later took place over a year and a half. All the stakeholders — parents, teachers, coaches, kids, transportation directors — were included in the conversation. Eventually, a plan emerged: The district decided to flip the elementary school start time with the high school start time. Research shows that young children aren't sleepy in the early morning, unlike the typical teenager.
So in 2003, Jessamine County's high schools started 50 minutes later. School District Supervisor, Lu Young, says the change has had a big impact at the high schools.
"We found that our students were more on time and in better attendance first period than they had been in the past," she says.
For many school districts, a major obstacle in changing their start times is the cost and scheduling of buses. Some districts, however, have juggled their bus schedules without any additional expense. The West Des Moines School District in Iowa, for instance, was able to actually reduce the number of buses needed by changing the start times of all three tiers of their school system.
Kay Rosene, director of community relations at the West Des Moines School District, says the switch gave the district a windfall of about $700,000 annually. Rosene adds that the potential savings was very appealing to the West Des Moines school community.
"It meant that other potential cuts in programming or curriculum offerings would not occur," she says.
Another challenge some school districts grapple with is the concern that after-school sports schedules would be affected by starting the high schools later. That was a central worry at the Mahtomedi School District in Minnesota. But a solution was found, says Superintendent Mark Wolak.
The high school students agreed to shorten the number of minutes they take to get from one class to another — a delay called "passing time." The result was that the high schoolers could start school later but end their school day at about the same time, without disrupting the athletic schedule. Since 2005, first bell for the students has been 35 minutes later. Wolak says parents were surveyed — and they overwhelmingly endorsed the decision, 5 to 1.
Wolak adds that teachers especially wanted a change because, "They were concerned about student attendance and student readiness to learn that first period of the day."
"One of the anecdotal findings was that we noticed better attendance and less student sleeping in class that first hour," Wolak says.
Research on the sleep needs of adolescents and their ability to pay attention and learn in the early morning hours supports Wolak's observations.