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Some Mich. schools delay start times to help teens sleep, learn

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Nancy Bush, of Shelby Township, with her three sons (from left) Christian, 12, Graydon, 12, and Benjamin, 5, at the playground at Crissman Elementary School in Shelby Township. Bush wants Utica schools to push back the time that middle and high school starts in the district.

During the school year, Lynn Stannard often hears her teen daughter roaming around her bedroom late at night despite the start of class just hours away.

“She got wound up at night. She just couldn’t settle down,” Stannard said of Abby Hutchinson, 14, who attends Berkley High School. “Sometimes I am up in the middle of the night, and she is still up. I tell her to go to bed.”

Research has shown what many parents of teenagers already know: most teens naturally go to sleep later and wake up later than younger children. The natural sleep rhythms of adolescents shift up to two hours later after the start of puberty, experts say.

Yet an overwhelming majority of public schools across the nation expect teens to be in high school classrooms before dawn. In Michigan, start times typically range between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. when it is still dark much of the year.

One Metro Detroit school district is making the leap forward this fall with a later start time for high schoolers.

High school students who attend Oakland County’s Berkley School District will be able to hit the snooze button for 40 more minutes after school officials moved the start of first-hour from 7:40 a.m. to 8:20 a.m.

The district studied the idea for a year and made the change for this school year, citing clinical research that says a later start time provides a host of benefits to teen students, from increased student achievement to fewer teen car accidents to a lower rate of depression.

Andy Meloche, principal of Berkley High School, says for years he saw firsthand how the same group of students stumbled into school every week, well past the morning bell.

“There were would be a steady trickle of kids coming in. The kids who were everyday tardy. They were walking in like they were sleepwalking,” Meloche said. “I said this doesn’t seem best for kids, starting at 7:40.”

To make the change, the district held a town hall for parents last school year to discuss the idea, consulted with staff over logistics and received approval from the teachers union, which was in the middle of contract negotiations this summer.

The change was approved late last month by the board of education. Dismissal time was extended and the amount of instructional time stayed the same.

“The biggest thing that drove this is the increase in student achievement,” he said. “This is such an easy thing to do. Districts do so many things to increase students’ achievement and make students healthier — with added costs. This has no added cost for us.”

Berkley, a district with 4,000 students including 1,500 at its only high school, does not bus K-12 general education students, with most walking to school or getting a ride, Meloche said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later to give teens time for sufficient sleep.

Yet most — 86.6 percent in America — do not. 

More than 10 percent of U.S. high schools start the school day before 7:30 a.m., 35.8 percent before 8 a.m. and 40.4 percent before 8:30 a.m., according to the National Center for Education Statistics data from 2015-16.

There is no established start time for Michigan schools. Local school boards make that determination, state education officials said.

Experts say a later start takes into account teens’ natural circadian rhythms. Teens often have a daily inner clock that runs longer than 24 hours, which makes it difficult for them to go to sleep when the rest of the family does.

And they often find it challenging to get up early, according to Dr. Ronald Chervin, a sleep neurologist and director of the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Centers.

“If we force them to get up earlier, they don’t make up for it by going to bed earlier. Their clock is still shifted. They end up sleep deprived,” Chervin said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says children age 6 to 12 need between nine and 12 hours of sleep a night, while teenagers 13 to 18 need eight to 10 hours.

Yet according to a University of Michigan poll published in 2017 by Chervin and Galit Dunietz, a researcher in neurology at the University of Michigan, parents are split on whether they support delays in school start times that would allow their teens to sleep later on school days.

A survey done through UM’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital Poll on Children’s Health found that out of 554 parents whose teens start school before 8:30 a.m., 51 percent of parents supported later school start times.

“Parents who knew more about sleep, they supported a delay. Parents who anticipated scheduling conflicts tended to oppose it,” Dunietz said. “The poll found that parents have no ideas about the sleep needs of their teens. Parents thought less than seven hours was sufficient.”

One Metro Detroit district started high school 45 minutes later last year and its superintendent said the impact was immediate.

The South Lake School District in Macomb County moved first hour to 8:35 a.m. and dismissal time to 3:35 p.m.

Superintendent Ted Von Hiltmayer said the move brought more students in on time and reduced absences.

“Immediately, one of the things we recognized — and we checked the data during the year — there were 60 percent fewer tardies in first hour and a 30 percent reduction in the number of absences to first hours,” he said. “That’s huge. You just can’t overlook that.

“After making this change, we are having students getting all their instruction in first hour.”

There was no added cost to changing the start time, Von Hiltmayer said. The later dismissal time has meant some athletics schedules were impacted, he said, and in some cases, students have to leave school early for faraway events in other districts.

Busing and athletic schedules often are the biggest concerns for districts and working parents when debating the change to a later start time. Berkley school officials said some freshman athletes may have to leave school early on some days for away games.

For one family, the start-time change at Berkley High School has meant looking for new childcare for younger children.

Parent Renee Cain says she and her husband who both work had to scramble for new childcare after relying on a high school student to pick up their child two days a week after school.

“We were lucky enough to get our kids into the latchkey program for just two days a week. By the time the district made the announcement, latchkey was already on a wait list for the other three days,” Cain said “I am not sure what families are going to do who relied on high school students to collect the younger kids from school. Latchkey is full. Parents have to work.”

A grassroots movement that focuses on getting schools to start later formed into the national nonprofit Start School Later.

The group that seeks to educate the public on the connection between sleep and teens has chapters across the United States, including five in Michigan.

Mothers Nancy Bush and Kathy Nitz have formed Start School Later chapters in Metro Detroit.

Bush, who has two middle school children and a kindergartner in Utica Community Schools, says she is already seeing the change in her middle school children at night as they are less tired later in the evening and tough to get going in the morning.

She expects it will get worse when they start high school.

“With the start time of 7:20 in the Utica Community Schools and buses picking up kids around approximately 6:50, most kids would have to wake around 6 in the morning. This schedule allows for about seven hours of sleep for most high school students,” Bush said.

Officials with Utica Community Schools issued a statement after The News asked for a comment on the issue.

“The bell schedule for the 2018-2019 school year has been established. Looking forward, any consideration to change times would require a thorough study of its impact on the entire K-12 system,” UCS spokesman Tim McAvoy said.

Nitz, whose four children attend Rochester Community Schools, said delaying the start time of school would also increase safety as children travel to school.

But Nitz says she knows implementation is hard, especially for working parents.

“It’s healthier for the kids. The research is there. The better rested the kid is the better they will do in school,” Nitz said. “We need to set them up for success and learn from the best. This is a way to do that.”

Officials with Rochester Community Schools said with 15,000 students, 21 schools and 100 buses running across 66 miles of northern Oakland County, changing the 7:30 a.m. start of high school is more complex than people may think.

“If it’s something the community and the board see as a priority, we will look at it. We would have to buy additional buses,” Rochester Community Schools Superintendent Robert Shaner said.

As a parent of a teen himself, Shaner acknowledges the science behind the earlier start. He was also a high school principal in Warren for several years.

“One year of results doesn’t equal success,” Shaner said of a district that makes the initial change. “With high school kids, I am not sure they wouldn’t sleep 24 hours a day.”