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Later High School Start Times: Controversial Changes Begin Locally

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The argument for later start times for high school students is not a new one. The longer we do not engage this question, the more information supporting the idea comes to light. With all the attention drawn toward common core issues, standardized testing, lack of resources, teacher evaluation, student mobility and poverty, taking on this leviathan locally is often avoided. But research continues to suggest we need to do something.

Researchers Paul Kelley, Steven W. Lockley, Russell G. Foster and Jonathan Kelley claim that younger children and teenagers are biologically conditioned to wake up at different times. They suggest 10-year-olds should start school at 8 a.m., 16-year-olds should start between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and 18-year-olds should start between 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. With just a cursory consideration, the "not possible's" easily percolate to the top.

The findings of these researchers support the long time conversation that school start times, particularly for adolescents, have a negative affect on their learning and attitudes. One read through the research and any leader can see the reasons why approaching this behemoth is a non-starter. Family daily patterns, childcare arrangements, teacher contracts, bussing schedules and costs, electricity and heating costs and athletics and after school activities that require scheduling with other schools are just the first six factors that come to mind. But if we are truly to be devoted to what is good for children and if it is our role to maximize their ability to learn and to support their physical and mental health, this has to become a seriously faced issue.

The researchers reported on schools that moved their start times and found that students who began school later performed better than those who began school earlier. They also found that almost no school districts started after 9 a.m. If we are willing to try anything reasonable to advance student learning, why not this?

Why Now?
The start time issue has been around for decades.  We also know that a century (or more) ago, when schools were designed to support farm schedules, adolescents, some of them, awoke early not only for school but to do the farm chores before school. Others had paper routes. So, if they could do it then, why reticence now? What has changed?

The daily life cycle of children (and some adults) has been changed by the 24-7 world around us. We are old enough to remember when TV channels signed off at night...no more. Technology in its many forms brings information access, the ability to create, share, and be entertained. Remember when after school snacks led to neighborhood play before dinner....no more. Family life, working parents, supervision, and values all have changed.  Yet, schools hold to a schedule and lives circulate around it as if it were immutable.   

Serving Children Better
As in our discussion about grades, the time has come for an open conversation about what each community values as "good for children."  Whether grades, or start times, flexible scheduling, or project-based learning, STEM or STEAM or STREAM or not, leaders are being called to create and hold the space for important, issue based conversations to take place. Certainly, our lives as leaders contain enough conflict; why do we want to create more reasons for its ugly head to rise up? Because, maybe we could serve children better than we are.

In The End...Courageous Leaders Are Needed
Hesitation can spring from doubts and fears. It can be a doubt that the research is flawed or not compelling. Perhaps it is self doubt that one's weaknesses will be exposed in an arena that simultaneously calls out competing factors, diverse opinions, frontal opposition and avid support. We acknowledge it can be a dangerous territory for those doubtful of one's own skill in managing such a space.  But leaders take these risks if children can be helped.

This is a complex moment. Not only does it include the call for leadership of a start time conversation, everything is under scrutiny. It might be a real redesign moment. We are trying to figure out how schools, curriculum, schedules, partnerships, and graduation pathways are to be designed. Schools shifting to project based learning models require business and higher education partnerships. How to fit these new relationships into the school day is a dilemma that must be addressed.

One thing we know for sure. We will lead more strongly on the state and federal stages if we have the benefit of conversations back home first. Then, a forceful leadership voice carries the message of many as we seek supportive changes in legislation and in structural constraints that will free us to bring progress under our watch. Talking about 21st century schools in the abstract will do our students no good. What do you want to do newly and better? With whom as partners? And, when will you begin?

Resource: 
Paul Kelley, Steven W. Lockley, Russell G. Foster & Jonathan Kelley (2015) Synchronizing education to adolescent biology: 'let teens sleep, start school later', Learning, Media and Technology, 40:2, 210-226, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2014.942666

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