The topic of healthy school start times has come up every few years in Ridgefield. Today, however, new information makes the conversation more compelling. Recently, three of the nation’s most highly regarded health agencies -- the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association -- have issued policy statements declaring that no adolescent should start school before 8:30 am. Research clearly demonstrates that starting school later improves the health, well-being and performance of adolescents. Medical authorities now assert that schools should make changes accordingly. Districts across the country, and two in our backyard (Wilton and Greenwich), have found solutions and are reaping the many benefits.
Busing does not have to be expensive. Greenwich initially formulated an in-house estimation of $1.6 million to accommodate later school times. Then they hired an agency that specializes in optimizing bus schedules. For approximately the cost of one bus per year, they discovered that there were several options that they hadn’t previously considered. Newly discovered options cost as little as $180,000, a fraction of the original estimate.
No child, big or small, should wait in the dark for the school bus. In the past, only two options were presented to the town: move high school start times out and start elementary school much earlier (to the tune of $480,000) or do nothing. What we can learn from Greenwich, which has 11 elementary schools, is that with a full analysis we will likely discover several more options. Evaluating multiple transportation options for maximum efficiency is critical to finding a viable solution.
Sports will be impacted-- in a good way. Wilton High School has had a later start time since 2003 and they have worked through any scheduling challenges. A Stanford study determined that athletes who sleep later have a whopping 68% reduction in athletic-related injuries. Professional baseball and football teams as well as college teams have recognized the importance of sleep to the improved performance of their athletes and have changed their practice and travel schedules accordingly. The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conferences states “later start times… improve student achievement…and [the CIAC] will continue to offer student-athletes the same opportunities for sports participation… regardless of individual district decisions on school starting times.”
It is our responsibility to protect the health of all students. No matter what time school starts there will be some people who want a different start time. Public health agencies have made clear recommendations about start times based on scientific research. It is not a question of "what do you want?” but rather of “what is best for you?” If the CDC were to issue a travel alert to Costa Rica due to Zika, and a student field trip was scheduled to go there, would we still send our students? Even if they really, really wanted to go? If high levels of lead were found in the school’s drinking water, would we survey the students or parents of the school to see if they were okay with the elevated level? Of course not. At best it would be deemed irresponsible. At worst, we would fear a lawsuit. So why would we continue with a school schedule that is known to be unhealthy for our youth? There is not one study, nor one agency statement, that contradicts the growing evidence that later start times make for healthier, more successful students.
This is a matter of biology, not mind over matter. Research shows that adolescents begin to release the sleep hormone melatonin around 10:45 p.m. and stop releasing it around 8 a.m. This makes it physiologically difficult for teens to fall asleep early and wake early. A joint Stanford/U.S. Air Force Academy study demonstrated that the overall performance and health of students improved significantly when school start times were pushed out by 50 minutes. Arguably two of the most demanding and rigorous schools could not deny the benefits of starting later. Why do we?
There is a solution for every district. No two districts are the same, and thus no two solutions will be the same. However, there are three things successful districts do have in common: They familiarize themselves with the data rather than make assumptions. They make the conscious decision to put the health, well-being, and academic performance of their students above all else. And they choose to focus their attention on opportunities for success rather than obstacles and barriers.
Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” The first step to finding a solution is being open to the fact that one exists. After all, isn’t that what we expect from our leaders and want to model for our children?
For links to public statements and research studies, or to sign the petition, please visit: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/start-ridgefield-high-school-later
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Start School Later, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization working at local, state, and national levels to raise awareness about and advocate for safe and healthy school hours. Start School Later, StartSchoolLater.net, and the Start School Later logo are the trademarks of Start School Later, Inc. and are used here with permission. The statements made here by Start School Later Ridgefield, CT