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Latest trend in area schools: Pushing back start times so teens can sleep later

Phoenixville Area School District just voted to become the second area school system to adopt a later starting time next fall, and a number of districts such as Radnor and Tredyffrin/Easttown are considering such a shift – inspired by scientific evidence that teens thrive when they get more sleep.

Students arrive for classes at Phoenixville Area High School on Friday at 7:10 a.m. Next year, they'll get to sleep in when the district pushes school start time back to to 8:05.
Students arrive for classes at Phoenixville Area High School on Friday at 7:10 a.m. Next year, they'll get to sleep in when the district pushes school start time back to to 8:05.Read moreTOM KELLY III / For the Inquirer

When Unionville-Chadds Ford became the first Philadelphia-area school district to push back the opening bell to 8 a.m. so students could get more sleep, it had to convince naysayers who said the change wasn’t worth the added busing costs or the disruption to people’s well-rooted daily routines.

Less than two years later, school leaders say the benefits of starting high school and middle school 25 minutes later — such as teens who are more alert in class and aren’t driving drowsy to school — are so obvious they wonder why it’s taken this long for the idea to catch on.

“There’s no question of going back,” said Jeff Hellrung, school board member in the sprawling district that straddles Delaware and Chester Counties. “The only question is when we can get to 8:30” — the start time recommended by the American Association of Pediatrics.

Other Philadelphia-area districts have taken notice. Phoenixville Area School District just voted to become the second area school system to adopt a later starting time next fall, and a number of districts such as Radnor and Tredyffrin/Easttown are seriously considering such a shift — inspired by growing scientific evidence that teens thrive when they can set their alarms for later in the morning.

And state lawmakers in Harrisburg and Trenton have launched studies or are pushing for pilot projects that could eventually make it routine across the region for kids to start high school or middle school after 8 a.m.

“Once a community says this is an essential public health matter, all these obstacles melt away,” said Terra Ziporyn Snider, the executive director and cofounder of the Maryland-based Start School Later Inc., an advocacy group with chapters in 30 states including Pennsylvania. She said her organization was once viewed as “a bunch of disgruntled parents” but now is busy fielding requests from school leaders and lawmakers on how to make later start times a reality.

Since 2014, a series of leading medical groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association have urged starting schools for teens and adolescents at 8:30 a.m. or later, mainly because their natural sleep patterns change. The studies found that getting less than eight hours of sleep not only affects a student’s grades but can also increase health risks such as depression, substance abuse, sports injuries, or auto accidents.

In Phoenixville, the Jan. 17 vote to start high school and middle school at 8:05 in the 2019-20 academic year — from 7:24 and 7:28, respectively, now — was the culmination of 18 months of study by a task force of district stakeholders. School will end 40 minutes later, at 3 p.m., with a few minutes squeezed from the school day. The group weighed disruption and likely higher costs for bus transportation and day-care issues against the growing body of science that teens are hard-wired to wake up later.

Like every school district in Pennsylvania, Phoenixville is required to transport children to nearby private schools, and Superintendent Alan Fegley said the higher transportation costs — which could be as high as $300,000 for extra bus runs to cover the different start times — motivated some of the dissenters in the board’s 6-3 vote.

But both the medical evidence on teen sleep and a supportive stance from the teachers’ union bolstered supporters of the concept, even as they decided it simply wasn’t feasible to move to the doctor-recommended 8:30 start time. “The board thought we could only go this far,” said Eric Daugherty, president of the school board in the Chester County district.

The Phoenixville task force read the growing library of research papers that include not just the pediatricians’ group but the CDC and others. The medical reports agree that kids’ biological clocks often change at puberty and they tend to stay up later — and they won’t get enough sleep if they set their alarm to get to school at 7:30 or earlier.

In Unionville-Chadds Ford, board member Hellrung said there was considerable resistance to the change when it was proposed two years ago — coming from many in the community who fretted their days would be disrupted, such as teachers, child-care operators, sports clubs, or afternoon religious classes, when school ended at 2:43 instead of 2:18.

But the move that gave some 2,300 kids in high school and middle school nearly an extra half-hour of sleep isn’t just accepted, he said, but highly popular.

“I think it makes a difference,” said Ryan Lenkaitis, a sophomore. " I feel a little better in the morning, a little more rested."

Lenkaitis thinks the change doesn’t go far enough. Starting at 8:30 “would be really good. I just need a little extra sleep in the morning.”

Betty Kucharczuk, who was on the committee that recommended the change, said her three kids have had to catch the school bus as early as 6:37, but now pickup is 7:12. While the new start time has been good for her kids, “it’s a significant change for the poor kids who got on the bus at 6:17 a.m.,” she said.

Hellrung said a district survey on 20 wellness factors — whether kids feel more alert in morning classes or while driving to school, for example — found improvement in 17 categories and a decline in just one. Athletes have seen concussions drop by one-third since the change — although overall sports injuries have risen, which Hellrung said appears more tied to Unionville-Chadds Ford teams going deeper into the playoffs.

Even the sharp spike in transportation costs that was feared didn’t materialize, with only $2,600 in additional costs attributed to the schedule change.

In both districts, logistics resulted in also pushing back the start times for elementary school, 30 to 40 minutes in Phoenixville, with the day ending as late as 4 p.m. Advocates seeking later start times for health reasons say that approach, called “the push,” isn’t as preferable as “the switch” in which grade-schoolers begin their day earlier than before, since younger kids tend to be early risers.

“It’s a scary event to make that kind of a major change to a district administrator and to a school board,” said Gail Karafin, a psychologist and coordinator of the Pennsylvania chapter of Start School Later, noting the maze of state education laws and transportation issues with private and charter schools that must be navigated.

Nonetheless, roughly 25 school districts in five Philadelphia-area suburban and exurban counties have representatives on a Regional Adolescent Sleep Needs Coalition that formed in 2016 to promote later school starts or other ideas to combat the problem of drowsy teens. Several Main Line districts such as Tredyffrin/Easttown, Lower Merion, and Radnor are studying the benefits of letting kids sleep in a little longer.

“We’re looking at a lot of different options,” said Kenneth Batchelor, the superintendent in Radnor, which formed a committee on start times about a year ago and then brought in a consultant as the district struggled to come up with bus schedules that worked for everyone.

Batchelor said the complications may make it hard for Radnor to move to a later school start this fall, but he said many parents are pushing for an eventual change because “we have a lot of people realizing the importance of sleep and Circadian rhythms and the impact on teen health.”

Judith Owens, a nationally recognized sleep expert, will speak at the district on Feb. 7. School officials also want to educate parents and students about other ways to get more sleep, such as putting away computer and phone screens before bedtime.

Help may soon come on the state level. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers voted last year to create an advisory committee on start times with school leaders and academic experts that’s expected to issue recommendations this fall. In New Jersey, State Sen. Richard Codey is pushing a bill for a four-year pilot program that would study the impact of later starts in five selected districts.

Advocates see the legislative efforts as more evidence that other school districts will eventually join Unionville-Chadds Ford in wishing they’d made the schedule changes sooner.

“We’re improving the quality of life for every single kid,” Hellrung said. “Maybe some kids’ lives were saved – we’re never going to know what car crash was prevented.”