Adjust School Start Times

Steps, Issues and Considerations in Planning and Implementing

Forming a Community Advisory Group

An important early step to take when considering whether to begin discussions about changing the start time is to involve a wide variety of stakeholders in the discussion*. The group should include the following:

  • The superintendent or designee
  • A middle and high school principal/assistant principal
  • District transportation director
  • One or more school board members
  • The district’s communication director or assistant director
  • At least one middle/high school teacher
  • An elementary school principal
  • A special education coordinator
  • The district athletic director or assistant director
  • The district community education director
  • A local physician/ health care provider who is knowledgeable about sleep
  • A member of the local community parks and recreation board
  • Several parents (Or, offer several presentations to parent groups in the district.)
  • Several students (Or, offer several presentations to student groups in the district.)

*Note: Several persons can have multiple roles as stakeholders, which may keep the number of group participants to a manageable number.

 

The Advisory Group Process and Tasks

The person who is the designated leader of the advisory group needs to have excellent facilitation skills and be viewed as neutral about the outcome of the group’s recommendation (i.e., not associated with any one viewpoint about the topic).

The advisory group tasks need to be made clear before the discussion begins. These would include:

  • Reviewing the biology and research section of this toolkit which includes the medical findings related to teen sleep and the positive educational and health outcomes associated with a later start time. A more comprehensive review of all relevant literature can be found on the Start School Later wiki
  • Designating a notetaker for the meetings with a clear plan to disseminate the meeting notes.
  • Create a timeline for the group to address and complete the tasks, including the number of meetings and the expected end-date for the entire discussion and review process.
  • Determine the level of authority the group has—for example, the group will make a recommendation to the superintendent or the school board.
  • Decide what the “final product” of the advisory group will look like, such as having a single recommendation or an array of options for the community or the school board to consider.

There needs to be a plan to educate and collect input from all persons in the district who are interested in the topic but are not part of the advisory review group. Such activities might include:

  • Holding ongoing informational update meetings in various locations across the district
  • Posting the meeting notes from the advisory group and stakeholder meetings on a district web page
  • Posting the relevant research articles on the district web page for district residents to read
  • Using a district or school newsletter for sharing the latest information
  • Using a web-based survey tool to collect input, especially collecting open-ended concerns and responses, from all district/community members. The general recommendation is that you should not use a survey to vote YES/NO to a possible time change. Surveys are better used to collect concerns and input, but not to be used as the decisional vote that is otherwise reserved for the school board.

 

A Sample Timeline

The district should allow ample meeting time for the advisory group to identify relevant issues and listen to all feedback before making a decision/recommendation. If there are strong feelings on both sides of the issue, the community will need time to reconcile after the decision is made and some parents will need time to adjust daycare or work schedules. The timeline presented here (about 8 months from the formation of the advisory group to a recommendation) is the MINIMUM needed for the community to implement the time change.

  • Winter through fall: Form the advisory group and hold 4-6 meetings. Draft several different scenarios for discussion and label them A, B, C, etc…
  • Late fall: The advisory group presents the recommendation to the decision authority (the superintendent or the school board).
  • November: School board discusses the recommendation and/or alternative scenarios and the decision authority makes a final decision to shift/not shift the start time.
  • Announce the plan to change the school start time no later than December 15th for the upcoming school year. This will allow educators and parents time to adjust home schedules, sport schedules and practices, child care and flex benefits arrangements, staff and curricular meeting times, and district transportation systems
  • NOTE: If the final decision is delayed beyond December 15th due to unforeseen circumstances, consider having the school time change occur in the fall of the following school year as opposed to the fall of the upcoming school year, depending on the needs of your community.

Key Recommendations from Minnesota Superintendents:

  • Communicate the message
    • It is VITAL to keep the focus on how adopting a later start time improves academic performance and the health and safety of the teenagers. Communicate this message early and often to avoid letting self-interest concerns take over the discussion.
    • Communicate first to principals and school leadership staff, and then all teaching staff and other staff as appropriate.
    • Ask health care professionals/pediatricians who live in the community speak about the health needs related to teens’ obtaining adequate sleep.
  • Listen to the Community
    • Listen with empathy. While many districts have gone through this change across the country and have the same concerns, it is your community’s first time, so active listening skills and responding thoughtfully will be critical to community buy-in.
    • Allow time to resolve issues. Some issues might seem large prior to an adjustment in start times, but they often are resolved by the end of the process. For instance, students leaving school early for sports simply make up the work they miss in their last class, rather than trying to readjust everyone’s schedule. Participation in sports and other extra-curricular did not decrease. In fact, coaches observed enhanced athletic performance and stronger mental acuity as athletes remembered plays better.
    • Help families’ problem-solve. Childcare for elementary students will likely be a concern you will hear about, if the district needs to flip bus schedules for cost reasons. Having the elementary children start earlier will benefit some family schedules, while others will need to find resources for childcare at the end of the day.
  • Know your School Board
    • Assess if they are willing and ready to field multiple questions and disrupt the status quo of well-established family routines and schedules.
    • Also, know their readiness to manage objections during the process and with their final decision.
    • Provide them with the resources needed to be prepared.
  • Know your Community
    • Seek to connect with key constituents like PTA groups, District Parent Leadership Councils, Citizen’s Advisory Groups, Community Youth Activities and Sports Groups, groups that use school facilities to implement their programs, etc.
    • Provide flexible timeline options to accommodate your community’s characteristics and traditions.
    • Recognize that it is not possible to solve everyone’s concerns. Some people will be ready to change and wonder why the school board did not address this issue earlier, while others will remain opposed and might never be satisfied with the decision.

General Notes for the Deliberation/Decision Process:

  • It is best to make a shift in the starting times of schools that will allow teenagers to obtain at least 8 hours of sleep each school night (the minimum amount needed to keep students from engaging in risky or illegal behavior), while also planning for the time needed by students at home (about 54 minutes on average) to awaken, dress, and eat breakfast before leaving home.
  • School that must incorporate prolonged commute times should consider later start times to meet the same rise time schedules in the homes.
  • Research shows that a sense of community “disruption” will occur, regardless of the amount of shift in the start time. Thus, it is not advised to make incremental changes to the start time over several years. Each time there is a change, the process will begin again and all the stakeholders must continually make modifications.
  • While it would be ideal to adjust school start times when your district needs to do so for other reasons (e.g. busing, opening a new school), delaying would mean a missed opportunity to positively impact the lives of teenagers currently in your district. Teen biology is never going to change. Therefore, while it may not be convenient, it is imperative to adjust school policy as soon as possible.
  • Daily athletic practices may have to be shortened a bit, but research has shown that 20-30 minute reductions in practice times have not caused the sports teams to do less well. In fact, many coaches have reported that their athletes “remember the plays better” with the later starting time, due in large part to the better rest they are receiving.
  • Practices or other co-curricular activities that occur before the start of the school day – a so-called “zero hour” – are associated with students reporting lower grades earned. Thus, continuing to hold those activities before school will negate the benefits of the later starting time.
  • The assumption that “teens will just stay up later” with a later start time has not been found to be true. The secretion of melatonin at about 10:45 p.m. will occur as usual, and most teens find staying awake past 11 p.m. to be increasingly difficult, unless they are using an electronic device (cell phone or iPad). Device use emits blue light, which can cause the brain to remain awake. Beyond the effects of light, this device use does not allow the student’s brain to disengage before bed, which is important for healthy sleep.
  • The change to a later start time is a complex process that will affect many different stakeholders and activities. A shift to a start time after 9 a.m. might produce even greater benefits. There are practicalities that must also be considered. An example of this would be the shared use of community recreation facilities or the schedules for sports teams which are part of a regional conference.
  • The outcomes and benefits realized by students have been found to be proportional to the amount of time change that is implemented. That is, the later the start time, the greater the benefits to teens across many variables –health and well-being, academic and athletic performance, and fewer risky behaviors.
  • Schools across the nation that have shifted their start times (over 200 in the past few years) found the benefits far outweighed any perceived issues. The vast majority have continued to stay with the new schedule without reverting back to their previous early time. The ones that did revert back, did so because they made only an incremental change (e.g. moving the start time from 7:15 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.) rather than fully committing to the change that would result in positive outcomes for youth (8:30 a.m. or later). When this incremental change didn’t result in marked improvement for the students, the community pushed for the school start time to be changed back. As noted above, if you are going to make a change, make it significant one.
  • Have a policy on file in respect to school start and dismissal times (see APPENDIX for a sample policy).
  • Finally, remember to keep the focus on the benefits of a later school start time and not to allow the process to get derailed by a few vocal individuals. Schools need to make decisions around what is in the best interest of the students, even if that is in direct conflict with existing schedules that have been built around the convenience of adults. This takes courage!

Ken Dragseth, former superintendent of Edina schools, was the nation’s first superintendent to change start times due to the irrefutable evidence in sleep research. His closing remarks to the Minnesota School Administrators Association (MASA) discussion (see superintendent video) called for courage among superintendents and stated that “not doing it (adjusting school start time) means that every year, some kids are going to be impacted by not having an optimal education experience.” He stated, “You are the superintendent. You are the education leader. If not you, then who?”

In addition, William E. Kobler, M.D., an American Medical Association (AMA) board member, commented on the AMA’s recent policy statement (issued in June of 2016) to delay school start times to improve adolescent wellness. He reinforced:

“While implementing a delayed school start time can be an emotional and potentially stressful issue for school districts, families, and members of the community, the health benefits for adolescents far outweigh any potential negative consequences.”

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