Davis finds success with late school start, and other districts may follow

Students can sleep in thanks to later start times at Davis middle schools

Davis eighth-grader Susannah Costello, 14, explains why she prefers the later start time at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School.
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Davis eighth-grader Susannah Costello, 14, explains why she prefers the later start time at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School.

Classes now start at 8:30 a.m. at Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School in Davis – 25 minutes later than a year ago.

Morning attendance has improved, and tardies fell in the first semester by nearly 25 percent. Students are eating better and say they are more relaxed during the morning hours.

“Sometimes I find that I have a lot more energy by just having an extra 15 minutes or 30 minutes of sleep in the morning,” said Emerson eighth-grader Susannah Costello, 14.

For generations, being an early bird was considered a virtue. But as health experts have raised concerns about insufficient sleep in adolescents, districts are questioning why they need to force students into the classroom so early. The traditional schedule – in some cases a first bell well before 8 a.m. – is considered out of sync with the natural sleep rhythms of teenagers.

Following Davis’ lead, several Sacramento area districts are debating school start times, one of the hottest topics at the moment. Trustees at San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County will vote Tuesday on whether to delay start times by 5 minutes next year and more in the future. Districts serving Rocklin, Folsom and Rancho Cordova already discussed the issue this month, while those in Roseville and Sacramento intend to tackle start times in the year ahead.

Some school leaders are persuaded by growing evidence that more sleep for teens translates into better academic performance, fewer car crashes and less depression. The middle school experiment in Davis has been successful enough that the district will begin year two of its changeover in the fall, when opening bells at Davis High School and Da Vinci Charter Academy High School will ring at 8:15 a.m., a half hour later.

“What I’m seeing is there are significantly more kids in class,” said Emerson Principal Stacy Desideri.

State Sen. Anthony J. Portantino said he believes there is enough evidence in the medical and sleep arenas to merit changes.

“For me this is easy,” he said. “It’s in the best interests of the students and all the arguments against it are adult-based arguments.”

Last month, Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, introduced Senate Bill 328 to shift start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for middle and high school students statewide.

“As we look at education reform, this is a very simple way to improve test scores, improve student health,” Portantino said. “All the data show attendance increases, graduation rates increase, drug rates fall, automobile crashes go down.

“With all these positive benefits, it seems to me that it would be irresponsible of us not to move start times.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics in a 2014 report urged high schools and middle schools nationally to aim for start times that allow students to get an optimal 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep each night.

Last June, the American Medical Association issued a policy statement encouraging schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. And last month, the Journal of the National Sleep Foundation issued findings that start times later than 8:30 a.m. improved attendance and graduation rates.

But opposition has surfaced, too, from districts and parents. The shift can be costly as districts need to negotiate the changes as part of teacher contracts. Bus transportation costs can go up.

And there are conflicts with after-school activities and sports scheduling. Teams that normally play games right after the traditional school day may miss more class time in a later model. Practices and activities can bleed into the evening if they start half an hour later, pushing family and homework time even deeper into the night.

Last year, the Folsom Cordova Unified School District signaled that it would delay high school start times by 30 minutes in fall 2018. But last week, district trustees indicated they will reject that idea after further consideration.

Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt urged the reversal, telling trustees in a report that more time is needed to address concerns over transportation schedules, after-school activities and negotiations with the Folsom Cordova Education Association, which mostly represents teachers.

In mid-March, Rocklin Unified School District also backed away from a proposal to open middle and high schools 30 minutes later.

Feedback from parents, teachers and students weighed heavily on trustees’ decision not to move ahead, Superintendent Roger Stock said Friday. In a first survey, the majority of respondents liked the idea, he said. In a second survey geared to a specific 30-minute delay in the schedule, a majority of both parents and staff members were opposed.

Districts elsewhere may take note of the pros and cons as they develop their own start time plans.

The academic committee of the Sacramento City Unified School District school board will take the matter up in the coming months, said Jay Hansen, board president and a committee member.

“It would not be anything we could implement before 2018-19,” Hansen said. “It’s certainly in line with recommendations from the medical community about sleep habits, for teenagers in particular.”

The Roseville Joint Union High School District also will dive into the issue next school year, said Superintendent Ron Severson. He said in an email that the district has entertained the idea for several years.

“Because not all teenagers are alike, one thing we are considering is a hybrid model,” Severson said. He said the school day would be expanded and students would have the opportunity to start at either 7:45 am or at 9 a.m., he said.

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