Friday, August 13, 2010

Parents Irate Over School Start Time Trade-off

A large urban school district’s move to accommodate children’s sleep needs seems to have backfired. Many parents are outraged that the Kansas City public schools decided to flip-flop elementary school and high school start times. Young children will be waiting at the bus stop before sunrise while teens get an extra hour of sleep.

District leaders had the students’ best interests in mind when they decided to make the switch. Extensive research links earlier high school start times to lower grades and more auto accidents. Many leading voices in the sleep field have advocated for schools to adjust for teens’ natural night-owl tendencies. Major school districts that pushed forward high school start times reported better grades, attendance and extracurricular participation.

The problems stem from costs. The Kansas City district would have to spend an estimated $15 million to buy new busses and hire drivers if primary and secondary schools started around the same time. District leaders say that is not an option.

The change resolves teen sleep issues but brings new daycare and safety issues for parents of younger children. Kids would finish school earlier in the afternoon, while many parents would still be at work. Parents are also weary over letting their kids stand outside in the dark, “at that time of the morning with weirdos” as one parent put it.

Although the research is not extensive, from a sleep health standpoint most elementary school children are able to adapt to earlier school start times. Younger children need more sleep than their teenage siblings, but are still wired to sleep easily in the early evening.

Teens need an estimated nine hours of sleep per night. That sleep need is difficult for most teens to achieve natural circadian rhythms combined with distractions such as cell phones and video games prevent them from feeling tired until late in the night. Some estimates show less than a quarter of teens get an optimal amount of sleep each night.

With bussing costs in mind there’s one option that’s rarely considered. What if high schools started mid-morning, after the traditional elementary school start times? The school day could run from about 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Teens would have plenty of time to sleep in every day and children would get to go to the bus stop while it’s light outside. The main downside is that athletics and extracurricular activities would run late into the evening. What do you think? Are there any other downsides with starting school in the mid-morning?

Image by dave_mcmt

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