Later start times in WCS high schools could improve students' health

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Williamson County School officials hosted a community meeting at Nolensville High School on Thursday to give WCS parents an opportunity to learn more about potential school start time changes and to discuss research results recently conducted by Hanover Research regarding teenagers' sleep patterns.

Hanover conducted research in school districts nationwide to determine if there was an optimum school start time for elementary, middle, and high schools.  

Vanderbilt Sleep Disorders Division Director Beth Malow presented the scientific findings in the lack of sleep American teenagers experience due to early high school start times.

According to Malow, melatonin levels drop in the brain during puberty.

“Where [elementary school students] may be ready to go to sleep at 8 p.m., everything shifts with a high school student where they’re not ready to go to bed until 10 or 11 p.m.,” Malow said.

According to Malow, fewer than 1/3 of high school students get at least eight hours of sleep.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics, Center for Disease Control, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend between eight and 10 hours of sleep for teenagers.

Looney said Hanover’s research results, which were completed in July, found that the average teenager is not receiving enough sleep.  

“There’s universal agreement that [the lack of sleep] is impacting [teenagers’] physical and mental health,” Looney said.

Hanover’s research results were inconclusive in determining whether or not school start times alone impact academic achievement. Evidence was found that delaying school start times would improve tardiness, classroom behavior, and attentiveness.  

“I want to be as objective and transparent in this conversation as we possibly can,” WCS superintendent Mike Looney said.

“I don’t have a formal position tonight. I’m still in the data-collecting mode.”

Looney said depending on the community’s reaction, three outcomes were possible for start times: no change to start times, a delay in all start times resulting in high schools starting at 8 rather than 7:30 a.m. and elementary schools starting at 9 rather than 8:30, or elementary and high school start times switch to elementary schools starting at 7:30 a.m. and high schools starting at 8:30 a.m.

How new start times could impact traffic

A panel of WCS staff members disclosed the potential impact the varying start times would have on various departments such as bus routes, extracurricular activities, and academics.  

WCS Transportation Director Jeff Fuller said he did not see a traffic problem in the mornings if start times were delayed by 30 minutes.

“The afternoon traffic would be more congested,” Fuller said.

“We’re looking at 4-4:30 p.m. for buses getting out [on the road], including parents and others on the road coming from work.”

Fuller said nearly 56 percent of bus riders are elementary school students. 

“By having elementary starting earlier, that gives my drivers more time to get to the elementary school on time and have more time to get to the high school and middle school stops,” Fuller said. 

Fuller said that “worst case scenario” some bus riding students arrive at school 15-20 minutes after the bell due to bus drivers having additional routes due to a bus driver shortage.

“[Swapping start times] would eliminate some of that,” Fuller said.

Fuller said that in the afternoon, many families depend on older siblings to arrive home before the younger sibling gets off the bus.  

“[With swapped start times] younger siblings would be getting home an hour earlier than they normally do. That would be an issue right there.”

Parents were given the opportunity to ask questions and voice their opinions on the potential start time changes.

One WCS mother with five children with varying ages said if the start times were switched, her elementary school children would be getting on the bus at 6:10 a.m., meaning the children would be getting up at 5 a.m.

“My teenager does not get enough sleep, but she is responsible enough that she can handle it, and she knows how to manage her time,” the WCS parent said.

“No one is saying how this would impact early education sleep because they need 10-12 hours according to the National Sleep Study … I think [the change would be] negatively impacting the sleep schedule of the elementary students.”

WCS will be hosting another community meeting at Centennial High School on Sept. 13 at 6 p.m. and a meeting at Fairview High School on Sept. 20 at 6 p.m.

(1) comment


I don't see enough questions being answered about how this later start/later dismissal will impact sports and after school activities. I believe it would seriously negatively impact any outside extracurricular activities, especially in the winter months when its dark before 5:30 pm. Like some say in this article, my high school student knows how to manage time and how much sleep is needed. Finally, are we preparing students for real life, worrying about their sleep habits, or is this just about a few points on the average ACT scores? I hope they leave the start times alone.

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