Chaminade Julienne students do classwork and have discussions during a mid-day math class May 17, 2019. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

School mornings start early despite medical advice to let kids sleep

A leading medical group says teens shouldn’t start school before 8:30 a.m., but the vast majority of local middle schools and high schools start earlier, as they cite busing costs, safety issues and student activity schedules.

Five years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics said adolescents’ natural rhythms make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. AAP cited research that adolescents lacking sleep often suffered from health problems, an increased risk of car accidents and a decline in academic performance.

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A Dayton Daily News examination found of the 20 largest school districts in the Dayton area, only three have any middle schools or high schools that start at 8:30 or later — Kettering and Centerville’s middle schools, plus half of Dayton Public high schools. Among 15 smaller districts that shared school start times, only Yellow Springs’ grade 7-12 complex starts after 8:30.

“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, who authored the AAP policy statement.

A recent University of Washington study showed that when Seattle Public Schools pushed back high school start times by 55 minutes, teens saw a median sleep increase of 34 minutes per night and had better school attendance.

At least seven local districts have middle schools or high schools that start before 7:30. The earliest are Dayton Public Schools’ three middle schools, which start at 7 a.m., while Carlisle and Tecumseh high schools begin at 7:15.

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Local school leaders offered a variety of reasons why their teenagers start class early. Several said start times are tied to busing costs — if a district staggers elementary, middle school and high school schedules, a single school bus and driver can cover multiple routes, saving money.

Beavercreek is changing schedules at multiple schools this year “to maximize busing efficiency,” according to spokesman Ryan Gilding. Bellbrook Superintendent Doug Cozad said his district is also changing school schedules due to a levy rejection that led to busing cuts.

“High and middle schools now will be starting 20 minutes later, which we believe is a benefit for those age groups,” Cozad said. But even with the changes, the middle school starts at 7:50 and the high school at 8 a.m.

For those students who rely on parents or other family members to drive them to school, a later start time can conflict with the start of the parents’ workday.

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The only local school districts that said sleep science factored into their start times were Kettering and Yellow Springs.

“We did adjust the school day (years ago) when we switched from a junior high to a middle school concept, because of research that showed that age group of students functioned better with a later start,” Kettering schools spokeswoman Kari Basson said.

Kettering middle schools start at 8:40 a.m., but the high school starts at 7:50, as Basson acknowledged that busing needs “will always have a role in our start and stop times.” Yellow Springs’ middle/high school complex starts classes at 8:45.

The sleep science seems to suggest elementary-age students are a better fit with earlier start times. But there are downsides to that as well, including the safety of younger students waiting for buses.

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“We believe the negative of having K-5 students standing out in the dark (if they were starting earlier) during the late fall/winter/spring outweighs (any benefit to) adjusting grade 6-12 start times later,” Eaton Superintendent Jeff Parker said.

Moving the high school schedule later would include some trade-offs, including a domino effect for student activities. Belmont, Meadowdale and Stivers are the three latest-starting local high schools, with a bell schedule that runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

That can make it a challenge for sports teams to get to weekday competitions, where freshman and junior varsity games in some sports begin around 5 p.m. And later after-school sports and band practices can trigger a later dinner and later start to homework.

“Our hours have been the same for several years and I do not know the original rationale,” New Lebanon Superintendent Greg Williams said, referring to the 7:30 a.m. start at Dixie schools. “A significant change in start times would require changes in a number of associated schedules like activities.”

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Interviews with students showed a variety of opinions. Kettering Fairmont seniors Scott McElfresh and Dana Battigaglia were in favor of starting school later than the current 7:50 a.m.

“My brain doesn’t really kick in until the end of first period or into second period,” McElfresh said. “That’s when I start to get focused. From the time I wake up until then, I’m just kind of going through the motions.”

Beavercreek senior Seth Owens said starting later would be good, but he said some teenagers have options, as he schedules more flexible College Credit Plus classes in the morning then is at the high school in the afternoon.

But Beavercreek senior Nick Brown doesn’t want a later school day.

“Personally I’m on top of it first period,” Brown said. “As the day goes on, after lunch I start to get a little more tired, but I actually feel better early in the morning than I do later.”

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