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BLOG: Later High School Start Times Proven to Improve Student Learning and Health

Research from the University of Minnesota's CEHD shows that later high school start times benefit both student learning and health.

With the beginning of another school year upon us, parents and students are gearing up with back-to-school shopping and transitioning from summer schedules to early mornings. For teenagers, these early mornings are a challenge as many will find themselves nodding off during their classes as high school bells ring around 7:30 a.m. While parents and teachers may attribute falling asleep during class to staying up late checking Facebook statuses and texting with friends, medical evidence suggests that an early school start time before 8:30 a.m. is a greater culprit because classes are occurring when students’ brains and bodies are still in biological sleep mode.

In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation teenagers ages 13-19 have a natural sleep pattern that leads to a late-to-bed, late-to-rise cycle. This is because in adolescents the brain chemical melatonin, which is responsible for sleepiness, is secreted from approximately 11 p.m. until 8 a.m. – the sleep phase shift. Early school start times interrupt this natural sleep pattern, leaving many high school students sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation negatively affects student learning and overall health which is why the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) conducted the first research study of its kind in 1996 to determine how shifting to a later school time impacts students and schools.

The School Start Time Study tracked high school students from two Minneapolis-area districts that changed to a later school start time from 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. (Edina) and 8:40 a.m. (Minneapolis Public Schools). The results showed many positive benefits, including:

  • Improved attendance and enrollment rates
  • Less sleeping in class
  • Less student-reported depression
  • Fewer student visits to school counselors for behavioral and peer issues
  • More even temperament at home

Five years later, a longitudinal follow-up study of the Minneapolis Public Schools revealed that the positive benefits continued to persist over time. Despite concerns from coaches, school administrators and teachers, the later high school start time did not affect enrollment in after-school sports and activities or increase transportation costs. In fact, coaches and teachers reported students were more mentally alert at the end of the day. Other Minnesota schools to adopt a later start time include: St. Louis Park, South Washington County and Mahtomedi. Today, several high schools in the Minneapolis Public School district will start their day at 8:30 a.m.

About the study
The School Start Time Study was recently featured in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development Vision 2020 blog written by Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI). Wahlstrom’s research focuses on the politics of change, professional development of teachers and leadership issues. Her research on the importance of later school start times garnered national recognition. Wahlstrom received the National Leadership Award for research having a national impact from the Minnesota Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in 2000. Learn more about Kyla Wahlstrom and the School Start Time Study at http://cehdvision2020.umn.edu/.

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Patty Tanji September 04, 2012 at 12:23 AM
Great article. My school district 196...Apple Valley, Eagan, Rosemount, took up this issue of later school starts a couple of years ago. It was voted down.
Patty Tanji September 04, 2012 at 12:24 AM
Improved attendance and enrollment rates Less sleeping in class Less student-reported depression Fewer student visits to school counselors for behavioral and peer issues More even temperament at home .......= learning better
Casey Cosgrove September 17, 2012 at 02:13 AM
Dolores, of course, you can't speak for Dr. Walhstrom. In fact, her own article discusses no evidence of increased learning, just better behaviors. If her research had actually discovered that some evidence of increased learning, I'm sure she would have mentioned it.
Maribel Ibrahim September 26, 2012 at 01:48 AM
For those of you that doubt the "real world proof" of success with starting schools later, visit our Success Stories page here: http://www.startschoollater.net/success-stories.html You'll see many cases of improvements on many levels with later school starts. In short, later starts have been proven to result in more sleep and thus less sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation has been linked to increased depression, obesity, inability to focus, poor judgement, higher teen crash rates, increased drug use and more. Many schools have made the switch and one scholarly paper (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1628693) cites the following findings: "I find evidence that later start times are associated with decreased absences, less time spent watching television and a greater amount of time spent on homework, indicating that these factors may explain why later starting students have higher test scores."
Maribel Ibrahim September 26, 2012 at 01:51 AM
Also, Heyitsme believes that this is only a state level issue. That would be true if all states made evidence based decisions on maintaining effective standards for health and safety. Clearly, early school starts are a health and safety issue, and only through widespread education from multiple sources have many states been able to start leading the change to promote healthy school hours.

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