Should schools be starting later in the morning? Some southwest Ohio districts have made changes

A new round of studies on teenage sleep deprivation are again calling for changes in the near-dawn start times for high schools to avoid stressing their growing brains.

And now Mason Schools – the largest district in Warren County - is moving closer to taking a historic step by pushing back its 7:15 a.m. start time for high school and middle school students by 30 minutes.

Though Mason is drawing attention for the proposal – which will be decided by its superintendent next month and later voted on by Mason’s schools board - some Butler County districts made the time shift in recent years and saw mixed results.

Adolescent brains are still developing into the early 20s. A key component of healthy brain formation is adequate sleep and no one needs longer hours of slumber than teens, pediatric health experts have reported for years.

Lack of sleep has been documented as contributing to some teens’ depression and anxiety and can be an overall detriment to health. Puberty brings on a re-setting of their biological circadian body rhythms, pushing their natural sleep times closer to midnight.

“I feel the reason I am not motivated to go to school some days is not that I don’t like school, I love school, but it is because how early I get up in the morning,” said Mason High School sophomore Ryan Griffin. “I am definitely in favor of the school starting later.

“I feel that our school’s 7:15 a.m. starting time is way too early. Some of my peers disagree and say that they would rather get out of school earlier, but as a student involved many extracurricular activities, I feel I would much rather sleep in for an extra 30 minutes rather than getting out of school 30 minutes earlier.”

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital recently administered a study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Pediatrics journal, to determine the association between sleep duration and “risk-taking” actions like consuming alcohol or drugs.

They examined data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, an American-based questionnaire that explored health-related behaviors that contribute to death and disability among youth and adults. They pulled information from more than 67,000 high school students collected between 2007 and 2015.

After analyzing the results, they found 70 percent of the participants were receiving less than the recommended eight hours of sleep per night, and those who slept less than six hours were more likely to engage in “risky” behavior, the authors wrote.

“This is just one step that we’re trying to help address our teens lack of sleep, and the impact that has on their mental health,” said Mason Schools Spokeswoman Tracey Carson.

A shift of 30 minutes for Mason’s high school and middle school – starting next school year – would reverberate throughout all the district schools, impacting bus schedules and school parents’ childcare arrangements, said Superintendent Jonathan Cooper.

“Most everyone agrees that 8 a.m. is an ideal school start time. However, we have a very efficient bus routing schedule and giving each school this slot would increase our district’s transportation costs by millions of dollars. There are also concerns about other issues that might be impacting teens’ sleep, as well as concerns about how big changes to school schedules will impact our elementary students, staff and families,” Cooper said.

Some Butler County school systems reacted to sleep research findings and adjusted to later times a few years ago.

“Our Hamilton Freshman School and Hamilton High School began at 7:15 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., respectively, prior to the 2015-2016 school year,” said schools spokesperson Joni Copas. “They now start at 7:40 a.m. and 7:55 a.m., due to the research that says teenagers need more sleep or need to begin their school day later.”

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In 2015, officials at Talawanda Schools explored pushing back start times but backed away, finding the idea too expensive.

“Talawanda has one fleet of buses (and) the district is 144 square miles, and many of the routes are 45 minutes to one hour. Delaying the secondary (school) start times, negatively impacts the elementary schedule, and also could impact after school activities and sports,” said Holli Morrish, spokesperson for the schools.

“In order to avoid this, Talawanda would need to increase the number of buses in the fleet, and this would be a significant cost,” said Morrish, who added, however the idea of pushing back start times is still discussed in the district.

Prompted by research and the hope a time change may contribute to some improvement in student performance, Edgewood Schools was among the first in Butler County to made the move in 2012, delaying its high school and middle school start times by 30 minutes.

“This decision was made in response to parent and student requests,” said Pam Pratt, spokesperson for Edgewood. “It was believed that starting school later would benefit high school student performance. Since that time, we have not seen significant changes in attendance or test scores as a result of starting school later in the morning.”

(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this story)

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