Greenwich Latest District to Consider Later School Start Times

Girl sleeping at desk: Moodboard/Thinkstock

Greenwich High School senior Lindsay Keller is a typical high school student. She’s actively involved in sports, takes dance classes, holds down an after-school job and sometimes babysits on the side.

And just like many of her classmates, she’s often exhausted.

“I can’t remember the last time I woke up in the morning before school and felt entirely rested and ready to learn,” says Keller. “With a 7:30 a.m. start time for my classes, I often need to be up at 6 a.m. just to get myself organized and ready for the day. This is a really difficult thing to do considering I go to bed past midnight practically every night. By my afternoon classes I have to fight my body just to keep my eyes open.”

High school students today are busy. Between the requirements of the school day, expectation for extracurricular activities that will make them shine on college applications, and jobs to keep them financially afloat, many high school students find themselves running around from sunup to sundown.

Getting up in the morning in time for school can be a real challenge. Some would say, “Just go to bed earlier,” but science suggests teenagers’ sleep times naturally fall later in the night, and they require between 8½ and 9½ hours of sleep to be fully rested.

This information, coupled with students’ performance in school, has prompted districts across the state and country to consider later start times for high school students. Greenwich Public Schools has been in the process of examining a later start time for years. In June 2016, the Greenwich Board of Education endorsed the adoption of later start times for all Greenwich schools, including the high school. Start times will move from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. for the 2017-18 academic year.

Other Connecticut school districts that have considered later start times include Bridgeport, Cheshire, Guilford, New Canaan, Ridgefield, Westport and West Hartford. To date, Wilton is the only district to actually push back its start time. The district moved its high school start time to 8:20 a.m. in 2004; previously the school day had started before 8.

But the process of moving school start times back is not as easy as ABC.

To limit expenses, most school districts use a tiered-busing system, in which the same buses are used for different schools within a town that have different start times. In order to institute later start times for high school students, some communities have had to move elementary or middle school start times earlier. It is a cost-saving option to maintain the tiered-busing system, but it has received fierce resistance in Greenwich and “is off the table right now,” says former Superintendent William McKersie, who left in July after supporting a shift in start times in Greenwich. Instead, the school district will look to increase the number of buses it uses, which will come with a hefty price tag.

“This is very expensive and we’re going into a very tight budget year,” McKersie says. “It will require some very difficult decisions. I recommended this change knowing full well that the cost may become prohibitive.”

In addition to financial concerns, there is worry from some critics that later start times will cut into sports and other after-school activities. There is also concern from teachers. In Greenwich, McKersie says teachers are “strongly opposed [to a later start time], but they’re professional; they’re going to be there for what’s best for the students.”

Many of these same concerns arose when Wilton Public Schools considered making the switch 12 years ago. Wilton High Principal Robert O’Donnell was involved in the transition and recalls the largest pushback came from elementary school parents, who resisted their children being picked up earlier. The district pushed the high school start time five minutes later, from 8:15 a.m. to 8:20 a.m., to make it slightly easier on the younger students.

“It’s gone well here in the grand scheme of our educational program,” says O’Donnell. “I think it’s been a good thing for Wilton Public Schools. Some of the survey research that was done pre- and post-change says [the students] are getting more sleep each night. They are accumulating less sleep debt. That was important to us.”

O’Donnell admits that the later start times do minorly impact after-school sports. Student-athletes are sometimes dismissed slightly early depending on away games and tournaments, but the principal says the district tries to minimize that as much as possible.

“[The students] have to be proactive and get their work [from teachers] in advance,” he says.

While O’Donnell believes that later start times were a good solution in his district, he admits it may not be for every school in the state.

“It does depend on the district. It depends on the circumstances,” he says. “I know of many districts who have weighed the variables and decided not to do it.”

McKersie agrees that Wilton may not be a suitable model for Greenwich. “They are a very different district than we are. They are a much smaller district, they’re not transporting students as far and they don’t have the large percentage of private students they’re transporting that we do.”

Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, also agrees it is a district decision. “It’s an issue to be determined at the local level, and I think every community has to weigh the pros and cons and the logistical issues involved,” she says.

But the health benefits of more sleep for teenagers are undisputed. The National Sleep Foundation recently released recommendations that teenagers ages 14 to 17 require between eight and 10 hours of sleep a night. Young adults ages 18 to 25 require between seven and nine hours.

Dr. Daniel McNally, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Connecticut, says national sleep studies indicate 87 percent of high schoolers are getting less than the recommended number of hours per night. Instead, they are getting an average of seven hours of sleep.

“[There is] a biologic need for sleep. We use the term ‘homeostasis.’ The body has to keep in a regular state. Every so often you need to recharge your battery, but if that’s all it was we would be at our perkiest in the morning and sleepiest before bed, but that’s not necessarily true,” says McNally. “There is also the circadian rhythm, and sometimes those two don’t always match up.

“It turns out the way [a teenager’s] circadian rhythm goes, on average, it shifts from a morning type to an evening type,” he continues. “Everyone knows that. A young child gets up and is [excited] and a teenager isn’t even awake. There is a built-in tendency by their biology to go to bed later and get up later.”

That circadian rhythm will again change as they move into adulthood, so the notion that a young person has to practice getting up early isn’t really true.

“This idea that in school [teenagers] are practicing getting up early for work is like saying a kindergartner has to practice giving up nap time,” says Phyllis Payne, implementation director for the national organization Start School Later. “Naturally it will change.

“For teenagers, I have heard experts say waking a teen at 6 a.m. is like waking an adult at 3 a.m.,” she continues. “So think about what it would feel like to wake at 3 a.m. every day, day after day. That’s like shift work. We know it’s not good for adults. It’s not good for teens.”

The consequences of teens not getting enough sleep are significant — including a lack of focus and energy throughout the day, a fall in standardized test scores, an increase in automobile accidents and an increase in depression, smoking and several other factors. McNally says just one more hour of sleep can have a measurable impact on reversing these generalized patterns. Also, the concern that moving the start time back will only inspire teens to go to bed later, therefore not accomplishing anything, is not true.

“When you delay the start time you do add to the amount of sleep kids get,” he says. “Everybody used to be really worried, if we just start later they will go to bed later. That’s just not what happens. They do get more sleep. Sometimes it’s an hour more or 45 minutes more or a half-hour more. There are measurable improvements.”

The science clearly supports more sleep for young people, and McNally fully endorses the idea of later start times for all school districts. As he says, “All the kids need this.”

“I think the biggest obstacle to change is fear of change,” says Payne. “It’s a natural place that our brains go when we hear about change. We go to what’s going to be bad about it. We know that all of those logistical challenges that a school district has to deal with have been solved with the current schedule. What we need to know is that it can be solved with the new schedule. Other school districts have done it.”

Wheatleigh Dunham, a Greenwich High School parent who supports later start times, says, “It’s now not an issue of whether or not the science behind this is real, it’s how to craft an implementation plan that really suits our community.” He likened the situation to when smoking was first outlawed in restaurants and bars in states like New York and Connecticut. There was initial resistance, but people came around.

“I feel as though no teen is capable of living a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle when their bodies are working on so few hours of sleep each night,” says Keller, who will graduate before later start times at Greenwich might be instituted, but still believes it is important for future students. “If our schools were to delay a start time, it would give students the chance to rest a bit more, which regardless of how few hours, I can say from personal experience, makes a tremendous difference.”

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