‘Early to rise’ may be holding back high school students

EVERETT — At the Fish household, the well-practiced 5 a.m. choreography begins: getting dressed, feeding pets, doing chores, fixing breakfast. All this done to the relentless countdown to a 6:15 a.m. deadline — the moment two Cascade High School juniors and their work-bound mom rush out the door.

Chandler Fish, 17, is off to help set up the sound system for the school’s jazz choir. Practice typically begins at 6:30 a.m., an hour before the bell rings for first-period class.

Twin sister Cassidy Fish, who also is taking courses at Everett Community College through the Running Start program, spends the time before school assisting a teacher or doing homework.

Cassidy is the Fish family’s early bird, typically the first up at 5 a.m. “Usually by first period, I’m just wired and doing everything,” she said. “Most of the kids are like, ‘What the heck? How do you do that?’ “

Her sister, Chandler, is by far the more typical teen, struggling to get up at 5:45 a.m. After a weeknight job of baby-sitting, she often doesn’t get to bed until 11:30 p.m.

Cassidy said she can only imagine what it would be like if the Everett School District follows through on a proposal to start high school as much as 20 minutes earlier, at 7:10 a.m., beginning in the fall.

The district says it’s considering changes to its schedules for high schools, middle schools and elementary schools to trim about $163,000 next year from a transportation budget of $7.2 million.

Cassidy said she often spots as many as eight students among her 30 first-period classmates either sleepy or dozing. “In my opinion … there would be a lot more kids sleeping in first period,” she said.

Her observations aren’t unusual. Snoozing in early classes is a problem reported at schools across the nation, said Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement.

Studies show some 20 percent to 25 percent of students fall asleep if the first-period class starts by 7:15 a.m., said Wahlstrom, who has studied the ties between teenage sleep needs and academic performance over the past 15 years.

Part of the reason is how the brain programs sleep for teenagers, she said.

Melatonin, a substance in the brain that helps trigger feelings of sleepiness, usually is not secreted in teens until 10:45 p.m., she said. The maturing teen brain tends to remain in sleep mode until 8 a.m.

“The public doesn’t get it; it’s not a matter of choice,” she said. “They say go to bed early; it doesn’t work. They say, ‘Get up! It’s being lazy.’ It doesn’t work. It’s a matter of what’s going on in the body. This is about human biology.”

* * *

While the Everett School District is considering starting high school classes earlier, more than 250 districts across the nation went in the other direction, starting the first class between 8:30 and 9 a.m.

A Maryland-based grass-roots group, Start School Later, was launched to lobby for such changes. It has chapters in seven states, including Washington.

Schools that have made the switch to later high school morning bells often report improved attendance, more alertness, less sleeping in class and a drop in student depression, Wahlstrom said.

It’s not just classroom teachers who have noticed a difference. Athletic coaches at Minnesota schools that made the change told Wahlstrom, “Gee, we’ve got kids who remember the plays. The practices don’t have to be as long.”

Changing the high school morning start time by one hour, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., can mean a teen can grab about five hours more sleep each week. That translates into focus and concentration, which, when applied to homework, “leads to better grades,” Wahlstrom said.

The trend has led some Everett parents to ask whether the school district is going the wrong direction with its proposals to start high school as early as 7:10 a.m. and elementary school as late as 9:35 a.m. in the upcoming school year. Middle schools’ start times could range from 7:10 a.m. to 8:25 a.m.

“If we want to do what’s best for the learning environment for kids, we should look at start times in a critical way,” said Kim Guymon, who heads the Everett School Board Project, a citizens group. “I’m not sure starting elementary kids later and high school kids earlier is the right answer for that.”

Studies on the effects of sleep deprivation date back to the 1980s. As the lack of sleep builds up over days or weeks, it can cause mental impairment similar to drinking before driving, researchers have found.

Stanford University’s Dr. William Dement has said that there’s almost a linear relationship with sleep at night and alertness in the daytime.

Almost 70 percent of high school students fail to get the et lag or the fatigue of workers on night shifts, said Bora Zivkovic, a guest lecturer at schools and universities and an online editor at Scientific American. “That’s how kids feel every day when they get out of bed too early,” he said.

To fit kids’ needs best, elementary students should start earliest in the day, followed by a later start in middle school and even later in high school, Zivkovic said.

Ideally, high school classes would start at 10 a.m., he said, but 9 a.m. “is probably as early as they can actually wake up and not miss completely what was taught to them in first period.”

“The difference is dramatic,” he said. “First period, you’re talking into the air. Second period, they’re waking up. It’s so obvious the difference between first and second period in how much they can pay attention.”

School districts aren’t rushing to adapt schedules to such findings.

Many area high schools start around 7:30 a.m. In the Northshore School District, high schools start at 7:10 a.m., and some parents have been lobbying for change.

Transitioning to later high school start times triggers an avalanche of scheduling issues at school and home. And parents have their own concerns.

“I know three superintendents who have lost their jobs over this decision,” Wahlstrom said. “You get some people storming the school board who say, ‘This is a bunch of hocus-pocus.’ “

Mary Waggoner, spokeswoman for the Everett School District, formerly worked at the Issaquah School District, which studied pushing back high school start times for two years.

The concerns raised there included: Students who work after school or were responsible for caring for younger siblings, and conflicts for students who participate in speech, drama and sports activities with other school districts.

If high schools were dismissed later in the day, it could mean that sports teams might not be able to find enough lighted fields to practice on, Waggoner said.

If school started later, students participating in after-school activities with other districts would have to leave school early to get to those events, she said.

“This really is a story of … all the schedules in a school district being connected,” Waggoner said. “You move one piece and you can have unintended consequences for another piece.

“It wouldn’t work for one school district among many to make the change by itself.”

* * *

Budget cuts are driving Everett’s school schedule changes.

With the recession causing a series of annual cuts to state funding of public education, “you don’t have the luxury of making those choices to do it differently and incurring more cost,” Waggoner said.

The district spent $163,000 this year to add three new bus routes and modified four others at Cascade and Jackson high schools after traffic congestion caused scheduling delays for buses.

Switching school start and dismissal times would allow that money to be spent in the classroom next year instead of on transportation, Waggoner said.

It also would affect many of the district’s 18,700 students and their families and could tip its own set of scheduling dominoes, some parents say.

“When you schedule a child, you schedule a family,” Guymon said.

Students participating in before-school activities called zero period, such as Cascade High School’s jazz band, now arrive at school about 6:20 a.m., said Bill Bledsoe, president of the school’s band and color guard boosters.

“Instruments are up and ready to go at 6:30 every day, five days a week,” he said.

If high school classes start at 7:10 a.m. next fall, students might be arriving at school at 5:55 a.m. for a 6:10 start, he said.

“I respect we want to cut about $160,000 from the budget,” Bledsoe said. “I would say there are other ways to do it than starting school at 6 o’clock.”

Tina Fish, whose daughter, Chandler, participates in jazz choir, said the time shift could either mean an earlier start for that group, too, or switching to an after-school practice.

Chandler also works as a sports trainer for Cascade’s teams after school. “She couldn’t do both,” said her mom, who’s president of the school’s choir boosters. “It would be difficult for her to choose between things she likes so much.”

Asahel Jenkins, 18, is a Cascade senior who as a member of the swim team had a 4:30 a.m. wake-up schedule for a 5:30 a.m. before-school practice. He said the proposal to start school at 7:10 a.m. “sounds awful, to be completely honest.”

Even now, on some mornings it’s hard to even eat breakfast because of the rush, he said. “If you move it back even further, I would be like a zombie.”

* * *

After more than a year of study, a school district in Jackson Hole, Wyo., took the plunge this school year.

High school classes that started at 7:35 a.m. were moved to 8:55 a.m. Middle school starts at 9 a.m. Elementary schools start between 8:15 and 8:30 a.m.

When the change was first proposed, parents and some students voiced many of the same scheduling conflict issues raised elsewhere.

“A lot of concerns come down to really adjusting the daily schedule, not only with school, but life,” said Scott Crisp, Jackson Hole High School’s principal. “It does change your daily flow, in particular if you have multiple students at multiple schools.”

If students participate in high school sports, they leave school early as they’ve done in the past, he said.

The before-school zero period beginning at 8:10 a.m. allows students to take electives that they might not be able to fit into their schedules, but not core courses like science or math.

“You have to decide if your local community believes the research clearly demonstrates that a later start has positive impacts,” he said. “There will be things that have to be compromised. I don’t think you can change a start and end time in high school without some flexibility.”

Some scheduling tweaks can be made without a total overhaul in school schedules.

Everett’s Archbishop Murphy High School starts at 8 a.m., half an hour later than many high schools.

It has stopped offering academic courses such as chemistry and physics during the before-school period, which starts at 7:05 a.m. Only choir and band are offered now, said Steve Schmutz, Murphy’s principal.

Switching to block scheduling, with classes offered on alternating days, allows students to squeeze in seven rather than six courses per year.

Jeff Russell, president of the Everett School Board, said he will ask fellow board members if they’re interested in taking a look at high school starting times at their upcoming workshop.

“Any sort of dramatic change would be difficult to implement,” he said. “If you’re going to flip high school and elementary start times, one of the concerns would be parents getting elementary school kids to school at that hour, particularly walkers, in the dark.”

Yet research on the effect of later high school start times is strong, Russell said. “You can’t dismiss it simply out of hand. There needs to be a good rationale for not looking at start times in terms of academic achievement.”

Wahlstrom, the Minnesota researcher, said school districts have found solutions for virtually every scheduling problem that arises from switching to later high school schedules.

Concerns about increased busing costs didn’t pan out when two Minnesota school districts made the change. “It’s just the buses ran at different times,” she said.

Parents report an additional, unexpected byproduct of the scheduling change: Their kids are easier to live with.

The daily ritual of parents yelling at their kids to get up so they don’t miss their bus has been replaced by kids having time to eat breakfast with their parents.

“There’s conversation as opposed to yelling matches,” Wahlstrom said. “It changes the whole dynamic. The children are less volatile, a result of that extra hour of sleep.”

Once they’ve switched to later high school start times, it’s rare for school districts to go back to early-morning starts, Wahlstrom said.

“The research is pretty clear,” she said. “This is something that works to help teenagers develop their full potential. If we can do something better and smarter, why not go there?”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

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