Several Galveston County school districts have changed the start and end times of the school day in response to a recent study that concluded teenagers need more sleep to improve academic performance, their health and their moods.
“That was the driving force behind the change in start times for our middle school and high school kids,” said Melissa Tortorici, spokeswoman for Texas City Independent School District.
Texas City ISD trustees changed start and end times for each of the district’s schools.
Now, all but one of the district’s schools starts after 8 a.m. and most start at either 8:25 a.m. or 8:35 a.m.
Before the change, only one school started at 8:30 a.m.
The district’s new start times coincide with the results of a recent study put out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asserting adolescents who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight, suffer depression and perform poorly in school.
“However, insufficient sleep is common among high school students, with less than one-third of U.S. high school students sleeping at least eight hours on school nights,” according to the study.
The average start time in schools across the United States is 8:03 a.m., according to the study, Only 17.7 percent of schools surveyed started at 8:30 a.m. or later.
The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014 recommended a start time of 8:30 a.m. after discovering that earlier start times contribute to insufficient sleep.
“Research has shown that the biological clock during the teenage years shifts so that they naturally want to go to bed later and wake up later,” said Chris Ward, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
“When you have early start times in high school, you end up with students that are very sleepy and they tend to nod off, especially during those first one or two periods in the morning,” Ward said. “Being sleepy during school makes it very difficult to pay attention and learn new material. It also causes problems in mood, which can lead to behavior problems.”
Texas City ISD wasn’t the only county school district paying attention to the research.
Friendswood’s school trustees also approved later start times for this school year.
“Friendswood ISD’s secondary schools have had late start times as far as I can remember and this is my 15th year in the district,” Owen said.
Study results and recommendations have always been the driving force in the late starts, Owen said.
“We do find our hours at times conflict with surrounding districts and extracurricular activities, but doesn’t seem to be a problem,” Owen said.
While Friendswood and Texas City school districts pushed back their start times this year, other districts changed their start and end times with less focus placed on study results.
Santa Fe Independent School District, for instance, has no schools starting at 8:30 a.m. or later. Elementary students come the closest, starting at 8:20 a.m. each day.
Galveston ISD also adopted a new schedule this year that has all schools starting before 8:30 a.m.
Galveston officials did consider studies when adopting the new schedule, but decided there were other ways to address students’ needs, Moulton said.
“We also discussed that there are other perspectives that refute a later school starting time, by simply having students go to bed earlier in the evening so that they achieve the 8 to 9 hours per night suggested in some studies,” Moulton said.
Ward agreed with Moulton to some extent.
“There is not super great evidence that changing school start times will improve academic performance and behavioral issues,” Ward said. “The problem is that it would be a logistical nightmare for a school district to design a proper experiment manipulating start times among students.”
The findings of the studies are compelling and should be seriously considered, but there are also practical complications with pushing back the start of school days, said Jeff Temple, who is the vice president of Galveston’s board of trustees and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
“Practically, it’s a lot harder than people think,” Temple said. “It’s a matter of implementation. It would hurt some families more than others — parents that have to be at work at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m., especially low-income families.”
Parents told Galveston trustees during the meeting to adopt new start and end times that older students needed more sleep and would be able to take themselves to school, but asked that younger children start earlier and end earlier to work around parents’ work schedules.
While trustees tried to take both aspects into consideration, that doesn’t mean the district shouldn’t try to adopt study recommendations in the future, Temple said.
“Definitely, speaking for myself, I’m interested in opening the conversation,” Temple said. “For me, the research is a good idea. The difficulty is practicality. I’d be interested in talking more to the community. Just because something has been done a certain way forever and is difficult to change, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change. Especially with the research saying what it says.”