Should high school start later for teenagers in Wichita area?

09/02/2014 6:17 AM

09/02/2014 6:56 PM

The sky is still black, and street lights illuminate Corbin Prichard’s east Wichita neighborhood when he steps outside to walk to his bus stop each morning.

The bus picks him up well before sunrise – about 6:10 a.m. – to get him to Northeast Magnet High School in time for the 7 a.m. start to his school day.

Corbin, 14, said he doesn’t mind the early start time too much. And he likes getting out of school at 2:10 p.m., an hour before most of his peers. But that predawn bus ride is a drowsy affair.

Local educators, students and families are once again pondering whether school should start later for teenagers after the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report calling insufficient sleep among adolescents a public health issue.

In the policy statement issued last week, the group said making middle and high school students start classes before 8:30 a.m. threatens children’s physical and mental health, safety and academic performance. It called on school districts to move start times later to give teens a better shot at getting at least 8 1/2 hours of sleep a night.

Ripple effects

In Wichita, the state’s largest school district, most middle and high schools start at 8 a.m. and most elementary schools at 9 a.m.

A handful of magnet schools – Northeast Magnet High, Allison, Brooks, Mayberry and Jardine – start even earlier, at 7 a.m.

Officials say early start times at some schools, which were pushed back a few years ago as part of a cost-cutting measure, allow the district to make the most of its transportation budget. Arranging start times into three tiers means one bus potentially can be used to transport students to three schools, which cuts down on the number of buses required.

The Wichita district uses about 500 buses each day, at a cost of about $40,000 per year per bus. Add fuel and other related costs, and transportation makes up a huge chunk of the school district’s budget: about $29 million a year.

“We could have every school start at 9 o’clock, but if we did that, it would take three times the number of buses … all for the exact same reimbursement that the state would provide,” said Bill Faflick, assistant superintendent for secondary schools.

“School start time is something we have looked at very recently and will continue to look at, because we want to make sure we’re doing what is educationally best practice,” he said. “But it’s just not as easy as flipping the start times.”

Besides increased transportation costs, starting high schools later would create other “ripple effects” districts have to consider, Faflick said. Times would shift for after-school sports and other activities, which means losing daylight during late fall and early spring practices, and would cut further into evening family time.

If elementary schools started earlier instead of high schools or middle schools, more children would walk to school in the dark, Faflick said. And if the elementary school day ended earlier, many older siblings could no longer walk younger siblings home or care for them before parents got off work.

“We look at what best practice is and then what is feasible under other constraints that are there,” Faflick said. Starting school later for teens means “you gain here, but you give up there.”

‘Pathologically sleepy’

Advocates of later start times cite several studies that show the magnitude of the problem.

Beginning in puberty, a child’s sleep-wake cycle shifts about two hours later, the recent study showed, so it’s difficult for them to go to sleep before 11 p.m. even if they go to bed earlier.

Optimal sleep for most teenagers is “in the range of 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night,” the report said.

The demands of homework, extracurricular activities, after-school jobs and the use of technology mean “most teenagers stay up late on school nights, getting too little sleep, and then sleep in on weekends to ‘catch up’ on sleep,” the report said. As a result, “the average adolescent in the United States is chronically sleep deprived and pathologically sleepy.”

Shelly Sanders, a Maize mother, said she wishes school started later for her son, Peyton, who attends Maize South High School. Class starts at 7:40 a.m. at Maize South, but Peyton arrives early to record weather reports for the school television station.

“All along I thought that (starting later) would be the perfect idea, but until I saw it on the news, I didn’t realize it was part of their biological being,” she said. “But I’ve always thought even adults could use that extra hour.”

Not surprisingly, several local high school students expressed support for later start times. The American Academy of Pediatrics report was released just as Wichita-area teens started a new school year, many of them particularly drowsy and bleary-eyed after a summer of sleeping late.

“I wish we could go back to 9-4:10 days because honestly an extra hour of sleep would do amazing things to my attitude/focus,” tweeted Camille Buranday, a sophomore at East High School in Wichita.

“It’s easier for me to get sick when I don’t get a good amount of sleep, too.”

Case study in Missouri.

Last year, school leaders in Columbia, Mo., switched high school start times to 8:55 a.m., citing a growing body of evidence that teens do better with more sleep.

The switch was part of a larger overhaul of the Columbia district, which included opening a new high school, reconfiguring grade levels at school buildings and changing the transportation routing system. District officials hosted a community discussion about start times, and a student-led group led the charge for later starts at high schools.

After first supporting earlier starts to save money on busing, school board members “ended up changing their course,” said Michelle Baumstark, the district’s community relations director.

“They said the research says this, the students say this is what they want, they’re telling us all these things are too challenging, and we have to listen,” she said. “And it didn’t make everybody happy, by any means.”

Despite some complications with scheduling for athletics and other after-school activities, the switch was smooth and the response “very positive, for the most part,” Baumstark said. Many middle-school students complained because their new start time is 7:30 a.m. – earlier than before – but “with our (triple-route) structure, somebody has to go first,” Baumstark said.

“We hear from parents that it’s easier. We hear from the students that it’s easier. We have fewer absences, fewer tardies” in high schools, she said. “Our assessment data just came out … so we’re starting to drill down at that, and hopefully we can start to see some positive things there as well.”

Magnet schools

Matthew Creasman, principal at Northeast Magnet High in Wichita, said the 7 a.m. start at his school doesn’t seem to be a problem for most students. Many come from magnet middle schools, which also start at 7.

“We’ve had a pretty good run of success for many years at Northeast Magnet, so we have managed to be successful with the 7 a.m. start time,” Creasman said.

Because it’s a magnet school, families “knowingly, willingly make that choice,” he said. And plenty do. This year, the school had more than 700 applications for only 200 freshman spots.

Early starts make transportation costs feasible for Northeast and other magnet schools, Creasman added.

“What I’m afraid of is that if they were to force that issue, we might not be a school anymore,” he said. “I don’t know that they could afford to run us at 8:30. … I get the science behind it, but we have some really great programs, and for those programs to survive, we need to start earlier.”

Some Wichita-area students said later starts might be nice, but that wouldn’t ensure more sleep for teens.

“Many students would stay up later if school started later, so we’d sadly probably end up where we started,” said Andrew Figueiredo, a junior at East.

Jordan Watkins, a recent graduate of Maize High, said he made it through high school with good grades while working full time, and his school started at 7:40 a.m.

“We all complained about 7:40 classes, but we were fine,” he said. “I’m still complaining about 9 a.m. classes in college. It’s what kids do.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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