Three Pikes Peak region school districts are delving into a hot-button education quandary — starting school later for older students.
Walt Cooper, superintendent of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, sent a letter last week to parents asking for suggestions and comments on a proposed bell schedule shift that could begin next fall.
The board of Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument recently approved an 11-member committee, which will meet for the first time this month to examine the feasibility of later starts for middle and high school students, starting in the fall of 2021.
And a student-led study at Doherty High School last semester piqued the interest of Colorado Springs School District 11’s board and Superintendent Michael Thomas, who said in May that teenagers need more sleep than they get.
High school classes usually start about 7 a.m. Bumping that schedule to 8 a.m. helps growing adolescent bodies get more zzz’s, which leads to less fatigue in class and while doing homework, studies show. That, in turn, improves school performance.
“Biological changes in the circadian rhythm, or internal clock, during puberty prevents teens from falling asleep early enough to get sufficient sleep when faced with early school start times,” said Lisa J. Meltzer, an associate professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver.
She led a study released in June that says the start times delay “results in increased sleep for adolescents, due to later wake times.”
“The study findings are important because getting enough sleep is critical for adolescent development, physical health, mood and academic success,” Meltzer said.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that secondary schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later, to “support overall teen health, alertness and safety.”
Cherry Creek School District 5 in Greenwood Village delayed classes in the fall of 2017 by 50 minutes for middle school students and 70 minutes for high schoolers. Self-reported sleep on school nights increased by more than half an hour for middle schoolers and 48 minutes for high school students, Meltzer said.
But logistics involving transportation and after school activities come into play, along with meeting mandatory contact hours for students.
Over the past 16 months, leaders in Cheyenne Mountain D-12 in southwest Colorado Springs have been considering adjusting bell schedules to “more closely align with studies” that indicate synchronizing school clocks with student’s body clocks benefits alertness and overall health.
Parent and community feedback is due by Oct. 18, with a board decision expected by year’s end, the superintendent said in his letter. The information is on the school website.
If approved, D-12 high school students would start at 8:30 a.m. in August, instead of 7:35 a.m., and middle school students at 8:05 a.m. instead of 7:40 a.m.
Elementary school students would all begin classes next school year at 7:40 a.m., rather than the staggered times that range from 7:50 to 8:05 a.m.
The board’s decision will take into account the effect on families, which can involve student employment, students’ responsibility for siblings, athletics and sporting events, school clubs and community use of school buildings.
As a project for an anatomy class, Doherty High School seniors Kyra Reilly and Lindsay Severson conducted a sleep study and presented their findings publicly in May, at a Colorado Springs D-11 school board meeting.
Many students miss first period because they want to sleep in, said Kyra, admitting she did so Thursday morning.
Or, “They sleep through first period,” Lindsay said.
Also, Kyra said, “When we’re not awake and alert, there’s a higher risk of us getting into accidents when we’re driving to school.”
Their findings: It’s hard for teens to get the recommended 9.4 hours of sleep after being in school for eight hours and having an average of 4.2 hours of homework per school night. That leaves 11.8 hours for everything else, such as eating and activities, Kyra said.
Schools that start later in the morning discovered “on average, classes had greater attendance and higher scores,” Lindsay said.
They suggest moving D-11’s 7:35 a.m. high school start time to 8:15 a.m., “which would make a big difference,” Lindsay said. Elementary and middle schools would start earlier, allowing older siblings to drive younger ones to school, if needed.
The students know their proposal would work. For more than a decade, classes at Doherty start an hour later one one day a week so teachers can meet for professional learning community time.
“All the students we’ve talked to said it makes a big difference on how they feel on those days because they get an extra hour of sleep,” Lindsay said.
Shortening the length of a grace period after school and before athletic practices and club meetings would help keep activities on track, they said.
A calendar committee that works yearly on D-11’s schedule has been discussing the matter for years, said spokeswoman Devra Ashby, and likely will continue to look at the possibility.
The issue also is not new for D-38. But this year, it’s progressing. After a community survey in 2017, the board reviewed the information and didn’t act.
“We’re committed as a community to making sure we’re addressing the health needs of our students, including physical and emotional health, and how that has an impact on academic performance and holistic growth,” said D-38 Superintendent K.C. Somers.
The new parent-led committee studying the topic has representation from the board, administration, and elementary, middle and high schools. Members will review research, study bus schedules, consider after school events and consider the impact on families, Somers said. The committee will submit a recommendation to the board, likely in the spring.
If the board approves a switch, the new schedule would start in the fall of 2021, Somers said.
Classes in D-38’s two high schools now start at 7:40 a.m. and middle schools at 7:23 a.m.
“We have a lot of kids that might not be getting the recommended hours of sleep for various reasons,” Somers said.
“By understanding the impact of that, we’ll look at what the need may be and the logical implications of such a move.”
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