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YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Doctors urge later school start times; Davis schools unlikely to change anytime soon

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From page A1 | September 02, 2014 |

The country’s largest group of pediatricians is urging all junior highs and high schools to start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m., citing the well-being of the nation’s teens — most of whom do not get enough sleep.

But in Davis, where the bell rings at secondary schools as early as 7:45, change does not appear imminent.

“We support the scientific conclusions that adolescents on the whole need to spend more hours sleeping,” Superintendent Winfred Roberson said last Tuesday.

However, he said, the district won’t be changing start times — though it may work to find other ways to ease students’ sleep deprivation.

“While DJUSD won’t be modifying start times, our role as an educational institution can be to find ways to support our students by giving them the tools that will help them to think through, make adjustments and prioritize their competing forces that may be cutting into the recommended sleep time,” Roberson said. “These are life skills we are helping to build that will help students to function even after graduation.”

The recommendation and report from the American Academy of Pediatrics — published in the September 2014 issue of the Pediatrics — noted that multiple factors contribute to teens’ sleep deprivation, including athletics and extracurricular activities, homework, jobs and use of technology.

However, the organization said, “evidence strongly suggests that a too-early start to the school day is a critical contributor to chronic sleep deprivation among American adolescents.”

The reason is biological.

Around puberty, the report said, “adolescents can see a shift of up to two hours later in the time they go to bed and wake up.”

That shift is thought to be caused by two biological changes: the delayed timing of nocturnal melatonin production across adolescence that affects circadian rhythms, and changes in the homeostatic sleep drive, which makes adolescents feel awake longer than younger children.

The result, the report found, is that most teens go to bed around 11 p.m. Given that the optimal sleep level for teens is 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours, that puts their ideal wake-up time between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m.

“But estimates show about 40 percent of American schools start before 8 a.m.,” the report found.

That’s the case in Davis, where first period begins at 7:45 a.m. at Davis High School and 7:50 a.m. at Da Vinci Charter Academy.

The local junior high schools, meanwhile, start slightly later, with Emerson and Da Vinci junior highs beginning at 8:05 a.m.; Holmes at 8:08 a.m.; and Harper at 8:20 a.m., with the variation in bell schedules allowing for students to travel between junior highs and high schools when needed for classes.

Long-term study

So what does it mean if all these teens are waking up at 7 a.m. or earlier in order to get to school on time?

Researchers at the University of Minnesota set out several years ago to determine just that.

They spent three years studying 9,000 students in eight public high schools in three states and found that moving a high school’s first-period start time to 8:30 a.m. or later had a significant impact on students’ health and academic performance.

Specifically, the researchers found:

* Schools that start at 8:30 a.m. or later allowed for more than 60 percent of students to obtain at least eight hours of sleep per school night;

* Teens getting less than eight hours of sleep reported significantly higher depression symptoms, greater use of caffeine and are at greater risk for making poor choices for substance use;

* Academic performance outcomes, including grades earned in core subject areas of math, English, science and social studies, plus performance on state and national achievement tests, attendance rates and reduced tardiness show significantly positive improvement with start times of 8:35 a.m. or later; and

* The number of automobile crashes for teen drivers ages 16-18 was reduced by 70 percent when a school shifted start times from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.

The data, published this February, was collected from schools in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming and featured a population that was both ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, with the percentage of white students ranging from 60 to 90 percent, the free and reduced-price lunch rate ranging from 10 to 34 percent and graduation rates from 81 to 97 percent.

Similar findings

The Minnesota researchers were not the first to show positive outcomes among schools with later start times.

In their bestselling book, “Nurtureshock,” authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman — the latter of whom spoke at Davis Parent University two years ago — reported similar findings, including:

* When a suburb of Minneapolis changed the start time at their high school from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., the SAT scores of their top students (the top 10 percent) increased by 56 points for math and 156 points for verbal. Students also reported higher levels of motivation and lower levels of depression.

* A similar change in Kentucky was followed by a 25 percent decrease in auto accidents involving teenage drivers.

Changing school start times is no easy matter, though.

Starting — and ending — school later impacts athletes in particular, many of whom are already missing afternoon classes on occasion for games and meets. After-school practices might need to be shortened not just for athletes but for all after-school programs if the school day extends later into the afternoon.

Other challenges include aligning with citywide bus schedules, parent work hours and more.

“School and home schedules are complex and bring into play many factors, many of which do not turn on school district decisions,” noted Maria Clayton, public information officer for the Davis school district.

But those hurdles should not outweigh the public health concerns, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The AAP is making a definitive and powerful statement about the importance of sleep to the health, safety, performance and well-being of our nation’s youth,” said statement author Dr. Judith Owens. “By advocating for later school start times for middle and high school students, the AAP is both promoting the compelling scientific evidence that supports school start time delay as an important public health measure, and providing support and encouragement to those school districts around the country contemplating that change.”

Not a new issue

It’s a change that has been discussed in Davis before.

“This is not a new issue to DJUSD,” noted Matt Best, DJUSD’s associate superintendent of administrative services.

“We have had some discussions about start times with our stakeholders because we value the input from our students, families and employees,” he said. “Setting school schedules is a complex decision. It is vetted through many levels to ensure that the district takes into account important factors including, but not limited to, consistent start and end times across school sites, collective bargaining, family life, and athletics and extracurricular programs.”

School board Trustee Sheila Allen, who supports pushing back the start time at the high school level, has tried to start the discussion several times in the past few years, but said Wednesday, “I’ve never been able to get any traction.”

Allen said the biggest resistance has come from those involved in athletics and after-school programs, but she noted that at Davis High in particular, “few take seventh period anyway,” so having a later end to the school day would have less of an impact than many might think.

Allen added that she would like to see a community conversation started on the issue, whether it starts at PTA meetings, the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Committee meetings or among school board members.

“There needs to be a discussion,” she said, adding that pushing back school start times “is really the right thing to do for our students.”

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy

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