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Could more Zzzzs mean more As? School districts weigh later start times

Sleep experts – not to mention anyone who has lived with a teenager – know that adolescents stay up late, and often don't like to get up in the morning.

It's not just that they won't go to bed. It's also true that their circadian rhythms work against them. And the omnipresence of technology doesn't help.

That's why three area school districts are gathering information on the topic as they weigh giving tired students and their frustrated parents a break by starting the school day later.

"We're really setting up a barrier for kids to get appropriate rest," said Gowanda Superintendent Robert B. Anderson, who in December gave a presentation to his School Board on later start times.

Springville Griffith Institute also has been getting public input on changing start times, and Iroquois is gathering information on moving the high school start time as well.

"It’s a real tough decision, because you have tradition, people are used to it," Iroquois Superintendent Douglas Scofield said. "They have structured their life to be the way it is now. To change it, everyone has to restructure."

There are a lot of reasons teenagers are not getting enough sleep, and getting up in time to be in class in the 7 o'clock hour is one of them, Dr. Daniel I. Rifkin, medical director of Sleep Medicine Centers of Western New York believes.

When children go through puberty, their internal clock resets and the sleep-wake cycle shifts to a later period, Rifkin said. Their bodies aren't ready to fall asleep until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., he said.

Add to that constant texting and looking at cellphones and other electronic devices, which aggravate the problem. The body usually produces more melatonin after sunset, and the hormone levels remain higher through the night until they drop when the sun rises. But the light from a cellphone or a tablet suppresses the production of melatonin, causing an even later sleep time, Rifkin said.

Teenagers require about nine hours of sleep each night, he said.

"Very few teenagers get that amount of sleep," he said. "They are essentially sleep deprived by the time they get to school."

But maybe not everywhere.

At Clarence Central, classes have started close to 9 a.m. at least as far back as 1961, according to Principal Kenneth Smith.

"I think it works out pretty good. This age group typically has a difficult time getting up earlier in the morning and getting ready," he said.

He said athletic contests usually start about 4:30 p.m., giving teams an hour to get to an away game. Sometimes they must leave class early, if traveling to an away game.

On any given day at East Aurora, 50 to 60 percent of students start at 7:40 a.m. for an early period for music or Advanced Placement courses. Homeroom starts shortly before 9 a.m., so a student who drives could pull into school at 8:55 a.m. and make the first period, principal William Roberts said.

The schedule was created after a budget crises when the number of sections was reduced. Roberts said he doesn't see much difference in the wakefulness of students, but "a lot of our upperclassmen do value our later start time."

Most high school and middle schools start before 8:30 a.m., according to a 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control.

The early-later starting time conundrum has been around for years. A California congresswoman first introduced the "ZZZ's to A's Act" to have the federal Department of Education study the relationship between start times and student health and performance more than 20 years ago, according to the Los Angeles Times. It has yet to be passed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also "strongly supports" schools' efforts to increase the amount of sleep students get, urging them to institute start times that allow that.

Matt Goodmanson, a junior, yawns during physics class in 2014 in Buffalo Grove, Ill. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Not getting enough sleep can result in several problems, such as mood and behavior changes, an increased risk for obesity and drowsy driving, as well as poorer academic performance, according to the experts.

At Gowanda Central, middle school classes start at 7:15 a.m. and high school classes start at 7:32 a.m. That means buses leave the garage for the first pickup at 6:15 a.m.

Gowanda is thinking of changing because the evidence is strong that a later start time will result in increased student achievement in teenagers, Anderson said.

In one study, researchers at the University at Washington looked at academic performance of sophomore biology students from two high schools in the Seattle school district when start times were moved nearly an hour later to 8:45 a.m. The study found there was an increase in median sleep duration of 34 minutes, and a 4.5 percent increase in grades. Attendance also improved.

Science may say teenagers should start school later, but there are some issues that come up when talking about changing start times, including transportation, after school sports and activities, as well as work and family life.

Springville asked students and families to chime in with online comments on what should be considered when looking at changing. Comments were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the current early start time, with 77 percent of students and 58 percent of parents and staff in favor of retaining the current times.

Many school districts have two bus runs, an early run for high and middle schoolers, and a later run for elementary students. Combining them into one bus run could require more buses.

And if there was one bus run instead of two, bus drivers would have fewer hours, which sounds like a money saver, but it might exacerbate the problem of hiring enough qualified bus drivers.

"It's hard to get bus drivers now. If hours are reduced, would it be harder to get drivers?" Springville Griffith Superintendent Kimberly Moritz said.

She said "single tripping" would mean the district probably would have to buy four new buses and change its routes.

Many parents do not want elementary school students on buses with older children, although Moritz said she believes all students elevate their behavior when they are around younger children.

"Younger students should NOT be with the older ones, open door for too much to happen and things they shouldn't be hearing from older kids," one parent wrote on the district's Facebook page.

Child care before or after school also could be an issue. Some families rely on older children, who get out of school first, to watch younger children after school. If the two bus runs were switched, then younger children would get home before their teenage brothers and sisters.

Students also are worried about getting to athletic contests or after school work in time, and if they do play sports, when they would do their homework, Moritz said.

Community reaction on the district's Facebook page is similar to the online poll, although there is some support.

"I can see so many benefits here. Households would be able to run on one schedule, all of the kids could go out the door together. The teens could look out for the smaller children," one parent wrote on the district Facebook page.

And then there's the student who had another solution for sleepy students: “Just budget nap time into the school day so we get enough sleep.”

Cheektowaga students overwhelmingly reject idea of later school starting time

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