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Growing Research Renews Debate Over Later School Start Times

DRAPER, Utah – Doctors and researchers across the country are calling on high schools and middle schools to adopt later start times amid growing evidence teenagers would benefit in many ways.

They want to address the scenario that plays out each weekday at the Smith house in Draper.

By 6:39 a.m. on most mornings, the Smith girls are frantically grabbing lunches, packing backpacks and combing their hair to make it on time to the school bus stop.

They arrive before 7 a.m. with a lukewarm outlook for the day.

“I’m tired,” 13-year-old Kathryn said matter-of-factly.

“I feel like a zombie, really,”11-year-old Olivia said.

This frenzied approach to the teenage school day has many people calling for change.

“We’re just barely getting them out the door as walking zombies and what are they going to be doing when they sit in a chair and the teacher starts talking?” asked Chad Smith, Kathryn and Olivia’s father. “Are they actually engaged? Are they learning things?”

Schools in 46 states have pushed back start times and a growing number of parents and a state lawmaker believe Utah should look at doing the same.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, is also a doctor. She plans to introduce a resolution this upcoming legislative session that urges every district in the state to at least have a conversation with parents about later start times for middle and high schools.

“There’s more and more evidence showing the negative impacts of lack of sleep in our kids,” Harrison said.

She cited research from the National Sleep Foundation which shows only around 13% of teenagers get enough sleep – a recommended 8-10 hours.

Simply going to bed earlier may not be enough. Due to biological sleep cycles, research shows teens typically don’t get tired before 11 p.m. So when school bells ring as early as 7 a.m., that puts them in a daily sleep deficit, which not only hurts academic performance but physical and mental health.

“There’s even more and more evidence showing that it may decrease the risk of suicide, something that every community is rocked by in our state, with that being the number one cause of death in kids ages 10-to-24,” Harrison said.

She added a lack of sleep also plays a role in the No. 2 cause of death among young people: Car crashes.

Back at the Smith House in Draper, they said they already have a laboratory that provides convincing evidence in their weekly school schedule. On Fridays, school starts an hour later.

Chad and Wendy Smith see their daughters come home Monday through Thursday, drop their backpacks and collapse on the couch to rest or even nap. But on Fridays, they say the girls come home, initiate homework and practice their musical instruments willingly.

“It is a stark difference,” Chad Smith said.

Few Utah school districts, though, offer late starts.

  • Some Canyons schools have a “late day” each week.
  • Salt Lake and Juab school districts have been in the process of studying later start times. Salt Lake will survey parents this fall.
  • Park City studied late start and surveyed parents a few years ago, but the process was so divisive, they declined to even comment about the challenges and lessons for this news story.
  • Some charter schools offer “flexibility,” but none have adopted later starts.

The two biggest hurdles usually mentioned around this issue are busing costs and the impact on after school sports and activities. However, many districts and states across the country are finding ways to make the shift.

Often, they swap elementary start times with middle and high school times, since younger children don’t deal with the same sleep cycles as teenagers.

Right now, California is in the final stages of passing legislation that would ban any high school in that state from starting before 8:30 a.m. A similar bill passed last year and was vetoed by the governor. With a new governor this year, supporters are cautiously optimistic.

Draper mom Mollie Russell isn’t waiting for Utah schools to change – she’s taken matters into her own hands. She signed up her middle-school-aged son for home release first period.

Will starts each morning with a leisurely breakfast and some guitar practice. Then around 8 a.m., he gets on his bike and rides to school with a neighbor friend, who also has home release first period.

“There are quite a few of us who are dropping our kids off at that later start time and boy, they look happy, really, truly, they’re happy to be going to school,” she said.

Will said the extra hour of sleep makes all the difference.

“I feel like the rest of my day is better and I can also focus better in school,” he said.

Contrast that outlook with the one Kathryn Smith shared when asked how she likes school.

“It’s hard to feel like you really love something when you’re miserable,” she said.

Harrison is already meeting with leaders in the school districts, PTA and High School Activities Association. She knows these decisions aren’t easy, but she said nothing less than the well-being of our teenagers’ hinges on the outcome.

“There aren’t many silver bullets in life, but helping our kids get enough sleep and having that conversation about school start times may be as close as we’re going to get to a silver bullet,” Harrison said.

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