Capitol Alert

Later start times in California schools could save sleep, complicate family life

Zack Shellenberger, 14, center, and Nicole Greer, 13, right, try to keep their attention focused on Dr. Richard Stack of Mercy Sleep Center in this 2006 photo.
Zack Shellenberger, 14, center, and Nicole Greer, 13, right, try to keep their attention focused on Dr. Richard Stack of Mercy Sleep Center in this 2006 photo. The Sacramento Bee

Knikki Royster starts her workday as a juvenile court teacher in San Diego at 7:30 a.m., and she’s not sure what to do if her two kids can’t start high school until an hour later.

“I don’t like the idea of my kids having to walk to school. I prefer to drop them off,” Royster said. They would have to walk a mile to school. “I want that supervision in the morning. ... When you don’t allow parents to do their job, we start making systems that don’t work for parents and hurt the family.”

Working parents like Royster are wondering about new routines as the idea of later school starting times gains traction in California. Sen. Anthony Portantino’s Senate Bill 328, which would prohibit middle schools and high schools from starting earlier than 8:30 a.m., is cruising through the Legislature and faces final votes when lawmakers return next month. The debate also is playing out in school board meeting rooms around the state. In the area, some schools in Davis and Sacramento have already moved to the later start time.

Portantino, a Democrat from La Cañada Flintridge, has two daughters in high school and college and points to studies that show kids are not getting enough sleep, affecting not only their academic performance, but their general health. “I realized this was a significant public health issue,” he said.

Natasha Gottlieb has four kids in Pleasanton Unified. One of them is in middle school and high school, and the two others are in elementary school. Her daughter, starting her senior year in the fall, had to get to school as early as 6:50 a.m. for zero period. Gottlieb worries that the later start times will result in her kids finishing later in the day and could leave less time for extracurricular activities and homework. Still, her daughter’s health is paramount for her, she said.

“It’s horrible. They go to sleep around 11 and midnight and have to wake up very, very early,” Gottlieb said. “My daughter is a junior in high school, and she’s been lacking sleep for a long time. It will affect her health in the future.”

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement in 2014 sampled around 9,000 students across five school districts outside California. It found that students who sleep eight or more hours are less likely to have depression, fall asleep in class, drink caffeine or engage in dangerous behavior.

“The more I’m looking at the findings I do at my research center, the more it is compelling evidence that teenagers are at great risk when they get less than eight hours of sleep per night,” said Kyla L. Wahlstrom, the lead investigator of the study. In Wahlstrom’s study, students who started before 8:35 a.m. averaged around 7.8 hours of sleep, just shy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eight-hour standard.

Portantino’s bill cleared the Assembly Education Committee in early July, but he hasn’t convinced the panel’s chairman, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach. He said kids with working parents with rigid schedules will have get up early anyway.

“Other parents who didn’t have the same privilege (of setting their work schedule) – they would have to get to work at 8 a.m.,” O’Donnell said. “So I don’t see how this has kids waking up any later, because aren’t they going to have to go into daycare before the school day starts? How does that increase the sleep time?”

In a survey of district parents last year, San Juan Unified School District found hundreds of parents concerned about cutting into homework and extracurricular time. And while hundreds like the idea of their kids getting more sleep, more preferred to keep the earlier time.

Nancy Chaires Espinoza, legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, which opposes the bill, said California’s size and diversity makes a measure like Portantino’s difficult to implement.

“It just defies logic to prescribe a single start time for communities where parents largely don’t have the flexibility to adjust their work schedules (and) where there aren’t safe places for kids to go in the morning after their parents leave,” she said. “It forces students to chose between school and a job, some students will have to choose their job out of economic necessity.”

Some schools would need to pay for increased transportation because the start time for primary and secondary schools will be closer together, squeezing bus schedules, she said.

For those in favor of the bill, it comes down to the health of the students.

“I’ve heard every possible con argument, but at the end of the day you have to make a choice – are we going to do something that is in the best interest of our students’ health?” said Dr. Judith Owens, the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on school start times.

Jennifer Grace admits her morning commute will be twice as long if her children's high school in Elk Grove starts classes at 8:30 a.m. With three kids in elementary, middle and high school, adding more time between each drop-off time extends her driving commitment every week. That’s valuable time for Grace, who works from home as a real-estate broker.

“I’m worried about losing time in the morning also. I have the kind of job where if I don’t work I don’t get paid,” Grace said. “Other people who have jobs and take a few minutes off still get paid.”

But she’s still willing to extend her morning commute. Grace said it will make her kids healthier, and for that, she’s willing to support a later start time. Not just for middle and high school, but for elementary school, too.

Hawken Miller: 916-321-1199, @HawkenMiller

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