Chester County school districts look at merits of later high school start times
● By Steven Hoffman
School districts throughout Chester County are in the process of evaluating some of the research that suggests that there are numerous benefits for students if the school day starts later.
During a presentation at the Aug. 9 meeting of the Oxford School Board, local students who have served on a Delayed Start Time Committee for the last two years said that there would be significant academic, physical, and emotional benefits to a later start time, particularly at the high school level. They also encouraged district officials to consider the research.
Mary Curley, the director of communications at the Chester County Intermediate Unit, explained that the communications department oversees the Student Forum, a volunteer organization that brings together students from schools all across the county. The Intermediate Unit and county school districts work collaboratively to align their schedules as much as possible to maximize the services that are available to students. The Student Forum was charged with examining the potential impact that later start times might have not just on students, but on the entire school community.
Curley introduced three students—Matthew Daniels of Unionville High School, Lindsay Wanner of Coatesville Area High School, and Chris Arencibia of Avon Grove High School—who served on the Delayed Start Time Committee, and they led the 30-minute presentation.
Daniels pointed out that people—including high school students—are busier than ever, with more demands being placed on their time.
Arencibia, a highly motivated student, recalled that in his senior year of high school, he was taking four AP classes and held down a part-time job. During nights that he worked, he might not get home until 11:30 p.m. and would often be studying until 12:30 or 1 a.m.—or later.
Daniels posed a simple question for Oxford officials to consider: Do the academic, physical, social, and emotional benefits of a delayed high school start time warrant further research into strategies to overcome potential obstacles to implementation?
The students then outlined some of these benefits. The academic benefits included improved academic performance that may be twice as great in lower-performing students, improved alertness, memory, attention, and cognitive processing skills.
The physical benefits range from improved athletic performance to stronger immune systems to reduced risks for obesity, eating disorders, and diabetes.
The emotional benefits include reduced depress, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. More sleep also improves the mood and impulse control of students.
Students may also see a reduced risk of abuse of stimulants and other substances.
“There are numerous and undeniable benefits to even a half an hour of sleep,” Daniels said.
Teenagers are notorious for being late-sleepers, but there's a scientific reason for that, the students said.
Adolescent biological circadian rhythms cause teens to develop a sleep pattern of staying up later and then sleeping in later. According to the National Sleep Foundation, there is a conflict between the teens' internal biological clocks and the schedules and demands of society. Daniels said that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high school classes start at 8:30 or later.
School districts in other part of the country have been looking at later start times at the high school level for many years, Wanner explained.
Those schools—the Arlington Public Schools in Virginia is one example—reported that more students felt they were better prepared and participated more in class. Teachers in the district agreed with these assessments.
Wanner said that a survey of a Rhode Island High School found that students reported less fatigue after a later starting time was instituted.
The successes that other school districts saw with later start times prompted the Student Forum to survey students in Chester County about their feelings.
Wanner said that a survey that reached more than 2,000 students county-wide revealed a lot of support for a later start time.
Eighty-eight percent of the students said that they strongly agree with the idea that the delayed start time would positively impact their sleep. Eighty-one percent said that they strongly agreed that a delayed start time would result in academic benefits. Eighty percent said that a delayed start time would benefit Chester County High School students overall. Seventy-four percent of the Chester County students who responded to the survey said that they preferred that school districts consider changing their high school start times.
Of course, there would be considerable obstacles that would need to be overcome. Families have many obligations, including work, and changing the start times for high school students could impact those schedules. If the school day starts later, extracurricular activities will be affected. School districts would also be challenged to develop new transportation schedules for buses. If the high school and middle school students go to school later, do the elementary schools start earlier? Or would schools simply start later district-wide?
The Oxford School Board members expressed their gratitude to the Student Forum for the work that the members put in.
“Thank you for doing the study,” said board member Lorraine Bell. She pointed out that the troubles that students have with early morning classes are well-known. Bell herself recalled being told not to take the most challenging classes in high school and college first thing in the morning because those are not peak times for academic performance.
Board member Rebecca Fetterolf raised a concern about scheduling difficulties that could arise if high school students start school an hour later. Board member Stephen Gaspar pointed out that the delayed start time could increase costs to the district in a variety of ways, and many of the recommendations included in the study would also increase expenditures with no plan to fund them.
School board president Richard Orpneck asked about whether students, if they were provided with a later start time, might just stay up an hour later than normal instead of making good use of the time.
Daniels replied that studies from schools that have instituted a delayed start time have shown that students do get more sleep as a result of the change.
Orpneck said that he understands that the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District is a little bit further along on the study of this issue, and he asked how that district is proceeding.
Unionville-Chadds Ford has already formed a special committee to evaluate the possibility of a delayed start time. Daniels said that educating all the stakeholders in the district about the benefits and the obstacles is very important. He said that community conversations and a forum will be held in Unionville-Chadds Ford in the coming months.
Gaspar said that the students did a great job on gathering the information and making the presentation. Doubts about the viability—or necessity—of a change remain. He pointed out that employers won't be so understanding if a worker can't perform at the time they are scheduled. And certainly, generations of students have managed to make it through that first period class that came just a little too early.
If students find themselves in need of some extra sleep, “Why didn't the students get to bed 45 minutes earlier?” Gaspar asked rhetorically.
The Student Forum members encouraged the school district officials to consider the research, evaluate some of the obstacles, and consider the implementation of a delayed high school start time.
“The overwhelming benefits...truly warrant more investigation. The benefits are clear,” Daniels said.