Sacramento-area school districts consider later start times to accommodate sleep needs

Marvin Green, then 19, meets with Dr. Amer Khan, a pediatric neurologist, about his migraines and sleep problems at the Sutter Cancer Center, June 22, 2008.
Marvin Green, then 19, meets with Dr. Amer Khan, a pediatric neurologist, about his migraines and sleep problems at the Sutter Cancer Center, June 22, 2008. Sacramento Bee file

Most Sacramento-area high schools start around 8 a.m., long considered a reasonable time to begin class while giving students enough daylight hours after school to engage in sports and other extracurricular activities.

But some local districts are questioning that traditional schedule following a national call by pediatricians to address the sleep needs of adolescents, whose natural sleep cycles compel them to stay up later at night and wake later in the morning.

The Davis Joint Unified School District is considering whether to push back start times for junior high and high school by as much as 45 minutes. Folsom Cordova Unified trustees are talking about a similar change.

“We are really experiencing a big cultural shift in thinking about the importance of sleep,” said Madhavi Sunder, vice president of the Davis school board. “We think of Benjamin Franklin, ‘Early to bed, early to rise ... .’ It’s the American way to get up early and get going and do more.

“What the science is showing us is this is a crucial health issue. Now we’re understanding that to be healthy and thrive, we need to sleep more.”

Davis leaders are considering start times of about 8:30 a.m. at the district’s four junior high and three high schools, which together serve about 4,200 students. A few of those campuses currently ring their opening bells as early as 7:45 a.m.

The idea that teenage students benefit from later start times has made the rounds for years. But last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement calling insufficient sleep in adolescents an important public health issue. The academy urged high schools and middle schools to aim for start times that allow students to get an optimal 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep each night.

Davis school board President Alan Fernandes called the academy’s policy statement a “call to action” that became a campaign topic during last year’s school board race. In November, the Davis board gained four new members, all of whom wanted to explore later start times.

“Maybe we have a perfect combination of a board that’s motivated” to get results, Fernandes said.

Alex Chen, a senior at Davis Senior High School, said his parents make sure he gets enough sleep. But he said later start times could benefit students. He said sleep became most difficult last year when his class load included calculus, AP physics, AP biology, AP history and honors American literature.

“Sleeping more allows time to focus,” Chen said. “Often you’ll have a lot of homework every night, and just being able to focus and get it done efficiently is very important.”

Yesenia Garcia, 17, said she finds it difficult to fall asleep early. She said she often does homework at night and hits the pillow late. That leaves her reluctant to climb out of bed to make the 7:45 a.m. bell at Davis Senior High.

“First period I have English,” Garcia said. “I listen to the teacher talk. I don’t really want to talk, because I’m really tired. In the morning, nobody wants to do anything or be there. They want to be sleeping.”

Studies have shown that youth sleep patterns tend to shift with age: Very young children tend to wake up early – often before their parents – while teenagers by nature tend to stay up later and wake up later.

Dr. Steven Brass, co-director of the Sleep Medicine Laboratory at the UC Davis Medical Center, said adolescents in general have what is known as a delayed sleep phase. “As they get older, their body rhythm changes to the point where they go to bed later and get up later,” he said.

As a result, Brass said, “it would make more sense not to start (school) at 7 a.m. when they still need sleep. It would be wiser for the school to start a little later, especially for adolescents to be aligned with their biorhythms.”

Sleep deprivation can have serious consequences for teens, Brass said. In the short term, it can cause behavioral and physiological changes and affect memory and mood.

Trustee Sunder said she has seen changes in the sleep patterns of her own 12-year-old daughter, who starts junior high school next year.

“This past year she grew more than a head,” Sunder said. “There has been a tremendous change in her sleep patterns, and she doesn’t get up in the mornings.”

On the other hand, she said, her son, 9, still gets up at 6 a.m. and says, “Hey Mom, we don’t need to change start times.”

Last week, Davis Joint Unified staff members began seeking feedback about start times through the district’s website and via email, with plans to report back to the board in early April.

In past years, some districts considering later start times have been unable to get beyond a key obstacle: Later start times mean later dismissal times, and that eats into time that students currently spend on after-school activities, including athletics. Fernandes, in Davis, said he has talked to the district’s athletic director, part of the dialogue that must occur if the district is to move forward with changes.

“I’ve been told that a lot of districts have been trying to do this for years and have no traction,” Fernandes said.

Many schools in the region have relatively early start times. Roseville High School starts regular classes at 7:40 a.m. In Elk Grove, the regular schedule starts at 7:45 a.m. for both Laguna Creek and Sheldon high schools. It’s the same for San Juan, Mira Loma and Casa Roble high schools.

Ponderosa High School in the El Dorado Union High School District may have the earliest start time in the region: 7:10 a.m.

At Folsom High, the first-period bell sounds at 8 a.m. And the debate about later school bells has been long-standing. Teresa Stanley, president of the Folsom Cordova Unified School District board, said she has been raising the issue for 18 years.

“The thing that always gets in the way of making that change is after-school sports,” Stanley said. “There is not as much travel time, not as much daylight, and a lot of schools already have to let kids out of school early on game days so they can get ready for their games.”

Still, she said, it’s a “travesty that we have students going to school so early in the morning when we know from research that their brains are not awake, so they are not as ready to learn as they should be.”

This year, Stanley gained an ally in Folsom High senior Robert Bender, the school board’s student trustee. Bender said discussions with other student leaders about later start times prompted him to pitch the idea at a recent board meeting. The proposal should come before the board later this year, he said.

Stanley said later start times would be a boon for many parents.

“Parents would say hallelujah,” Stanley said. “Trying to get those kids out of bed so early in the morning and get them going is not that easy. Their circadian rhythms are not prepared.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.

Sacramento region start times

Here is a sampling of high school start times in the Sacramento region

Ponderosa High: 7:10 a.m.

Grant Union High: 7:30 a.m.

Roseville High: 7:40 a.m.

Mira Loma High: 7:45 a.m.

Sheldon High: 7:45 a.m.

Laguna Creek High: 7:45 a.m.

Sacramento New Technology: 7:45 a.m.

Davis Senior High: 7:45 a.m.

Del Campo High: 7:50 a.m.

Folsom High: 8 a.m.

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