ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Optimal time for learning
By Theresa Kelly Gegen
Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal
Benjamin Franklin’s oft-quoted “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” clashes mightily with the average teenager’s perspective on sleep.
Much more recently, John Lennon wrote and sang, “Please, don’t wake me, no, don’t shake me. Leave me where I am, I’m only sleeping,” in the song, “I’m Only Sleeping,” which gratified teens but was an anathema to parents dragging children from bed to get ready for school.
Then, sleep science sided with The Beatles.
And school districts across Illinois and the country followed suit.
Beginning in 2015, Barrington CUSD 220 began an in-depth study of the potential for optimizing student performance through changing school start times and examined the potential ramifications of such changes. Last fall, the determination was made to change school start times based on this effort. This school year brings the results of that extensive work: Later school start times for the district’s high school students.
Barrington CUSD 220, a K-12 district with 8,850 students, including approximately 3,000 high- schoolers, did its homework, covering factors including transportation and traffic; studies on adolescent sleep needs and school start times (see page 10); the impacts on sports, arts, and other extracurricular activities; benchmark school districts, and the possibilities for blended learning.
In its 2009 Strategic Plan, the school district community identified changing start times as a priority to address before 2020. The start time change was one of several initiatives designed to achieve “optimal time for learning.” Changing school start times was the third, and most complex, decision relating to this goal. The district altered its school-year calendar for 2014-2015, to align final exams with its winter break, and implemented a full-day kindergarten enrichment program that same year. Then, stemming from the work of its 35-member Input 220 Advisory Committee, the challenge of changing start times was underway.
“The Input 220 Advisory Council researched many reputable school districts … that changed to a later start time for teenagers,” said Barrington Superintendent Brian Harris. “Every school district … experienced significant benefits from beginning high school and middle school classes later.”
Input 220 found that schools that had changed start times reported greater student achievement (especially in morning classes); higher standardized test scores; a reduction in sports injuries; decreases in tardiness and absenteeism; declining teenage car accidents; and in some cases, improved performance by varsity and junior varsity sports teams at the high school level. Significantly, they could not find a single district that reverted to earlier starts after making a change.
“In fact, every district with whom they spoke indicated the initial resistance to change was the worst part of the process; all reported measurable benefits with little to no impact on traffic, sports, etc.,” said Harris.
Kristina Anderson, a parent and community leader, chaired the benchmarks subcommittee of Input 220.
“I came to this process with no particular opinion,” Anderson said. “I didn’t have a high school student at that time and didn’t have any feelings about when school should start. What I learned as we all did the research is that there is so much medical, scientific, and real-world evidence that sleeping later in the morning and starting school later is beneficial to the physical and mental health of teenagers. It is part of the national movement acknowledging that we have been pushing kids to work against their biology, and that hasn’t been working well for many of them.”
Any discussion of start time changes, indeed any changes a school district considers at all, must include consideration of costs. One key cost factor for the district was adapting transportation to start time changes. Barrington’s previous bus routes were tiered, so that bus drivers made consecutive routes, first for high school and then elementary and middle schools. Start times could not overlap without requiring additional routes and costs. Barrington was scheduled to bid its transportation in March 2017, thus was able to incorporate the start time change in its bid documents.
Another consideration was the district’s agreement with its teachers. The Barrington Education Association (BEA) agreed to work together with the administration, and a memorandum of agreement was reached between the board of education and the BEA, prior to the vote to change start times.
In addition to the work of the administration, the school board, and the Input 220 committee, the district held town hall meetings. The conversation prompted active social media discussions. In September 2016, Barrington SD 220 sent out a survey based on its initial research. And, although there were differences of opinion on the start time options, the respondents overwhelmingly — 73 percent — supported later start times.
Input 220’s research was extensive, and extremely valuable to the board, staff and overall community. The district’s work, meeting reports, research, comparison scenarios, impacts on transportation and extracurriculars, and recommendation videos, is available at www.barrington220.org/input220. An opposition group, Barrington United for Education, agreed with the impetus for change but thought the proposals were “extreme” and the decision was being made too quickly. The group also raised concerns about instructional time, extracurriculars, and elementary schools moving to earlier start times. The group’s concerns became part of the discussion.
In “I’m Only Sleeping,” John Lennon lamented, “Everyone seems to think I’m lazy.” Although sleep science establishes that it’s not laziness, nonetheless the question of coddling, or the perception of it, was raised in Barrington.
“I am aware that some parents feel that moving the start times later is ‘coddling’ our children,” said Anderson. “To me, that is like saying that providing children with a healthy meal or clean water is coddling them. If we want kids to be healthy and do their best, we try to provide the best possible environment that we can for them to be physically and mentally healthy.
“There is plenty of time later in life for kids to learn the brutal reality of getting up at 5 a.m. for your job,” she continues. “The fact is, their brains and bodies are still growing, and that distinguishes them greatly from all of us adults. We are better equipped mentally and physically to handle the strains of difficult and long hours.”
High school students, Barrington’s included, have demanding schedules: three or four hours of sports practice, other significant activities, or jobs after school.
“Many kids at Barrington high school ‘work’ 10 to 12-hour days,” says Anderson, “If you consider school plus sports and other activities.”
The change on extracurriculars was another much-discussed component of the start-time change conversation. The district determined that not much would change, and in fact, some benchmark schools reported positive impact.
“Changing the start time [will] have a nominal impact on before- and after-school activities, Harris said. “ If high school students were released after 3 p.m., practices, games, and other extra-curricular activities may end later in the evening, but that could be balanced by other scheduling, without encroaching on the all-important goal of creating more time for much-needed sleep.”
The district also considered the adjustments that would be necessary for students with after school jobs, and for families who depend on older siblings for childcare. In the long term, Barrington SD 220 hopes to build flexibility into its scheduling, as well as exploring blended learning opportunities that will mitigate some of these challenges.
“We understand these might be challenges for some students and families, although research and the experience of other school districts having gone through this indicate the benefits justify the change,” Harris said.
The district considered the needs of its community, even when deciding when to decide. The board of education made its determination to change the school start times in November 2016.
“The start times of our schools have an impact on many programs in our community, such as preschools, after school child care programs, youth sports and fine arts activities, student employment and many others,” Harris said. “Based on conversations, a decision [in November would] allow these organizations an opportunity to adjust their schedules and programming … and provide families with the proper notice to make the necessary adjustments.”
Last year, the school day for a Barrington High School student began at 7:20 a.m., with some bus routes starting as early as 6 a.m. This year, the opening bell for high school students in this northwest suburban district will ring at 8:30 a.m. and the standard school day will end at 3:21 p.m. Barrington Middle Schools will run from 9 a.m. to 3:48 p.m. The elementary school schedule will be 8 a.m. to 2:40 p.m.
Barrington CUSD 220 intends to measure the impact of the change through quantitative data, including attendance (overall and by class period), student achievement, and student well-being (nurse visits, behavior inci dents). Qualitative data to be examined as well, from student and staff surveys and parent feedback, covering sleep patterns and habits, before and after school activities, and student fatigue (before, during and after the school day).
“The overarching goal,” said Anderson , “should be to provide kids with a healthy environment as much as we possibly can, and that means letting them sleep when their bodies are demanding they do so.”
Thanks to Barrington CUSD 220 Board President Brian Battle for his input, and to Barrington High School parent Melissa McKee Buckley and Morgan Delack, former Director of Communications for the district, for their contributions to this article.
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