Later start times met with mixed reviews and results

Later start times met with mixed reviews and results

(Tenn.) Starting school just 20 minutes later has led to some positive outcomes, some negative ones, and mixed responses from families in Williamson County, Tennessee.

Williamson County Schools moved to start the current school year a little later in order to give older students more time to sleep so that they would get to class well-rested and ready to learn. Now, no high school in the district starts earlier than 7:40 a.m., and elementary schools start at about 8:50 a.m. and get out around 3:50 p.m.

After one semester, district officials have seen little change between school attendance and discipline referrals this year and in previous years. Among elementary school children, tardies increased slightly–from 0.70 percent last year to 0.74 percent this year–but both middle and high school students saw slight decreases. Middle school tardies dropped from 1.70 percent to 1.52 percent, and high school tardies from 2.28 percent to 2.10 percent.

At the same time, all grade levels faced an increase of early checkouts, with high schools seeing the biggest jump from 1.82 percent to 2.05 percent. Disciplinary referrals mostly decreased, except at the middle school level, where referrals increased from 2.05 percent to 3.71 percent.

Organizations including the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association all recommend school starts no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for teens, whose sleep patterns during adolescents shift about two hours later, causing them to fall asleep at later hours.

According to district officials who spoke to The Tennessean, start times were pushed back 20 minutes as a compromise between medical research and parent concerns about logistics expressed during community forums or on surveys.

Since the change was implemented, some families have said they’ve seen the benefits play out in their own households. One parent told reporters that her 11th grade son was better rested overall, and that she was less worried about him driving drowsy.

The majority of families, however, would like to see the schedule return to last year’s.

Earlier this year, the district surveyed families’ and employees’ opinions on school start times, and received about 1,300 emails. Of those, about 60 percent said they preferred last year's schedule. Only 35 percent favored the later start times, and about 5 percent wanted to do something different, like flip elementary and high school start times.

Parents of elementary school students said the shift had been especially challenging. Respondents said that, in order to get to work on time, their children had to be dropped off in before school programs as early as two hours prior to school starting. District officials have reported that enrollment in before and after school has tripled this year, and noted that there's a waiting list.

Some families reported that extra-curricular activities and family time are impacted by schools now getting out later. Later end times have also made it more difficult to schedule doctor or dental appointments after school, which forces parents to check their child out of school early.

Additionally, not all teens are even getting the extra sleep. Later end times have pushed some school clubs to start early in the morning. According to The Tennessean, some coaches now start their teams’ practices as early as 5:30 in the morning, which negates any positive impact of later school start times.

Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney has said it’s too early for the district to recommend any changes, and has asked the school board for this second semester to continue collecting data. If the district wants to change the start time again for the next school year, the s board would have to make a decision by April.