Seattle Public Schools Give Sleep A Chance

teen boy sleeping

Huffington Post, 8/16/16

In three weeks Seattle Public Schools will give middle and high school students an extra hour of sleep — every night! Seattle is the largest urban district in the US to switch to later start times for adolescents, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With Washington schools notoriously underfunded, why did the Seattle School Board decide to take on this complex and time consuming change?

We did so because the research strongly shows that adequate sleep improves cognitive and athletic performance while also boosting mental and physical health. With inadequate funding we need to ensure that we get the biggest bang for our education bucks. What else gives all of those benefits?

At no point was the School Board unanimously in support of this initiative. Some of us thought it would be a simple switch of elementary and secondary school start times. We’ve discovered that it isn’t simple, but it’s very doable.

In the interest of helping other school districts make this important change, here’s what it took:

Local parents, teachers, pediatricians and sleep experts formed an organization and used solid research findings to gain public support. They repeatedly showed up at School Board meetings and met with Board Directors, convincing a majority of us that we should seriously consider this.

After much deliberation the Board voted in favor of a resolution giving the Superintendent six months to “determine feasibility, costs and logistics of shifting to later start times for adolescents. This includes analysis and well informed public engagement.” With extensive information coming out of that process we voted to move forward with the change, giving the Superintendent and staff a year to work through the logistical issues. That work is continuing right up to the last minute. 

Sports schedules have probably been the most controversial. Adjusting game times may be the greatest challenge for many districts. Seattle was already transitioning to its own inner city league, which made it easier. Only a few sports compete with districts outside of Seattle. Two of our high schools had already moved to later start and had made adjustments so that students leaving for games miss less academic class time. One solution is an advisory period at the end of the school day. A solution for districts that must compete with other districts is to coordinate a regional shift to later start times. Several districts around Seattle are making the change, and there could be a domino effect as we see the benefits.

Later sports practices call for lighting on all fields. We still have several needing this upgrade and are looking for the funds to do that. We are also in the throes of coordinating field use with community and adult leagues that will be impacted by later school practice times.

Transportation changes were complicated, but may not be for other districts. Seattle schools had transitioned to a three tier transportation schedule in the interest of saving money. Most elementary schools were in the third or latest tier. Most high schools were in the first. The mandate from the School Board was that transportation changes had to be cost neutral. District staff did an enormous amount of work to move high schools and middle schools into the second tier, and all other schools to the tier they preferred. When school starts in three weeks most high school and middle schools will start at 8:45. Most elementary schools will start at 7:55. Some K-8s and a few elementary schools will start at 9:35. Nine out of 98 schools are not in a preferred tier but the District continues to look for ways to satisfy them.

Another challenge is child care for elementary students who now finish school much earlier. However prior to the switch many of these same students had very late start times and required child care before and after school. Seattle Public Schools is working with providers, the City and community partners to address this need.

The entire city of Seattle is in on this. Community non-profits, the Parks Department, Seattle Housing Authority, the Department of Transportation and others have helped to address the logistical needs to make this possible for our students. Children’s Hospital has launched a publicity campaign on the importance of adequate sleep. Seattle Times just ran a story on recent research that suggests that later start times may be of particular benefit for adolescent males.

Dr. Horacio de la Iglesia, a University of Washington researcher/professor began a study in Spring, 2016 measuring the impacts of more sleep on the academic achievement of students at Seattle’s Franklin and Roosevelt High Schools. According to Iglesia, “These two schools are interesting as they have different sociocultural and ethnic compositions, and they could help us determine how the change in bell times affects sleep in different groups. We will conduct the same study on a new cohort of students during the spring of 2017, so we do not introduce seasonal differences between students before and after the bell time change.”

The study uses wrist activity monitors to measure sleep-wake patterns. The grades of each student will be used to determine whether or not later start times boost their academic performance.

So far there has been no major pushback in spite of changes to schedules that impact most families in Seattle. With an entire city rallying to make this possible it should be clear to other school districts that they will gain enormous support when they decide to change to later start times and give sleep a chance.

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