8:15 a.m. school bell? La Jolla Cluster debates later school start time

As the clock rolled back Nov. 5 to mark the end of Daylight Saving Time, millions of people relished in some extra sleep. Meanwhile — and for the last 10 years — the La Jolla Cluster Association has been talking about changing the start times for La Jolla public schools to provide teens that same restful feeling. Currently, Muirlands Middle School begins at 7:30 a.m., La Jolla High School at 7:25 a.m. The Bishop’s School implemented a later start time (8:15 a.m.) just this school year, and already considers it an “enormous” success.

While scientific research and political will are beginning to catch up in support of the idea, implementing a time change would require an overhaul to the busing and athletic systems, requiring financial resources not available during the current budget crisis.

As La Jolla parent and La Jolla Cluster Association member John May explained it to La Jolla Light: “The conundrum here is that science is showing (sleeping in later) is better for kids, but then there’s the reality of what families can accommodate. Between handling a student’s schedule and managing one’s own, it’s going to mean a lot of individual decisions that layer together to find a solution that does the most good for the most number of people. That’s going to be a very hard compromise to find.”

What Science Says

In researching the subject, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) joined a growing list of organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, supporting a later school start time. In 2014, the AAP reported it recognizes insufficient sleep in adolescents as “an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students.”

It adds: “although a number of factors negatively affect middle and high school students’ ability to obtain sufficient sleep, the evidence strongly implicates earlier school start times (before 8:30 a.m.) are a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption, in this population. Furthermore, a substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep-loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety and academic achievement.”

As to the idea that students should just go to bed earlier, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine counters: “During puberty, adolescents become sleepy later at night (around 11 p.m.) and need to sleep later in the morning as a result of the shift in their biological rhythms.”

The Political History

With all this in mind, last year the La Jolla Cluster Association sent a survey home to the parents, teachers and staff of Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High schools. The results were “overwhelming in favor” of a later start time, says La Jolla parent and teacher Aimee Lansky, with about 80 percent in support.

Concurrently, SB-328 “Pupil attendance: School start time” made its way through the Senate this year. The bill would “require the school-day for middle schools and high schools, including those operated as charter schools, to begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. by July 1, 2020.” While the bill passed at the Senate level, it did not pass at the Assembly level, and will be re-introduced in January.

Locally, the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) voted in October to direct Superintendent Cindy Marten to educate school staffs and cluster associations on what the process would be to shift school start times — an action some in the La Jolla Cluster Association chuckle at, given they’ve been investigating this process for more than a decade.

May reports: “Most in the La Jolla Cluster are in favor of changing the start time. Those who’ve read the research and understand that it’s what’s best for the students, generally tend to be more supportive, until you start talking about disrupting moms’ and dads’ lives.”

Busing Issues

One of the ways a later school start time could disrupt lives is when it comes to scheduling district-wide bus routes. Of the more than 1,500 students at La Jolla High this year, 527 ride the bus to school. At Muirlands, 227 students of the 1,000 enrolled are not La Jolla residents, so 122 of them ride the bus.

“You can’t rearrange the schedule for just one Cluster because of the domino effect: all buses run on multiple routes, an early and a late route,” May said. “For us to switch, someone is going to have to start earlier or we’re going to have to get more buses and bus drivers. If this is going to be done, the only way to do it is to completely revamp the transportation schedule, which costs money the district doesn’t have.”

Further, in looking at the possibility of switching schedules with another school, Lansky said, “It raises the question that, if we know this is what’s best for kids, why would we only do it for some? It creates an equity issue.”

Additionally, by starting schools later, busses would be subject to commuter traffic not currently faced. “If you start later, you’re going to hit freeway traffic, there’s no question about that,” May said.

When asked if the extra sleep from later school start times would ultimately be lost because the students would need to leave earlier to account for traffic, he replied: “I don’t think anyone has looked at that yet.”

Lansky said she considered the later start times and did an informal traffic study of what commute times would look like to and from school from the SR 52, I-5 and 805 freeways. She found: “There is no good time to leave and not hit traffic. In some school districts, they streamlined the bus routes. But we have so many bus routes in our district it would take a computer program our district doesn’t have.”

Athletic Program Concerns

The ripple effect of a later start time continues with athletics. Currently, La Jolla High ends the day at 2:15 p.m. and the time practices begin varies on the sport. Athletic director Paula Conway said the biggest challenges would be light availability and bussing. La Jolla High only has one illuminated field, used for football, lacrosse, soccer and the like, so sports played on other fields, such as baseball, need to end before it gets dark.

“The later we start, the more challenging it is to get game and practice time in,” she said. “If they can’t start practicing until 3:30 rather than 2:30 and it gets dark around 5 (on an unlit field), that’s a challenge. We’d have to get more creative about when teams practice, maybe have morning drills, which would defeat the purpose of giving students the chance to sleep later.” A possible solution would be more lights, but the installation would have to be done in a way as to not impact residents, or add lights to the nearby field at Muirlands, which La Jolla High uses.

Those who travel for games would either need to be pulled out of class or, if the time change was district-wide, athletes would need to leave school early to avoid traffic. “Currently, the school offers sixth-period athletics, so if the athletes need to leave for games, they wouldn’t lose academic class time. But it’s mostly freshmen and sophomores who take that,” she said. “Let’s say an away game started at 3:30, if we’re not out of school until 3, we’d need to pull athletes out of another class to get them there on time.”

Sports that take place in the gym would be less affected by light availability, but there would still be the question of travel times for away games.

“From an athletics perspective, education comes first. We’re here to serve students and what’s best for them,” Conway said, “But it would affect us, we would have to shift together. Some kids do both sports and theater, so a later start time could take away from their chance to participate in multiple activities.”

Success at Bishop’s

That’s not to say, with all its challenges, a later start time could not be implemented. This year, The Bishop’s School made the change, starting the day at 8:15 a.m. instead of 7:25 a.m.

“Bishop’s has high-achieving, driven kids. But the faculty and administration started seeing that they were overstressed and tired, and not operating to the level they’re capable of,” explained Brian Ogden, head of Upper School. Staff began investigating a later start time, pulling together a Balance of Life committee. “The most compelling evidence was the effect of sleep deprivation on the adolescent brain. It can lead to depression and anxiety. In a classroom setting, these students function at a lower level.”

Concerns discussed, Ogden said, included less time with peers and family, and trying to fit in non-academic activities, homework and getting enough sleep. Bishop’s rearranged its schedule to space out certain classes, so as not to overload students with homework, and determined it could successfully change the start time.

“It wasn’t easy,” Ogden laughed. “We relied on an outside consulting and research firm to give us some guidance on what other schools did with these issues. But I think it’s been an enormous success. Seeing the students at 8:15, their attitude and perspective on how their life is balanced … they’re much happier kids.”

For Bishop’s parent, Alexa Scoma, the proof was in her middle school- and high school-age children. “It has been life-changing for us,” she said. “More than anything, it’s less stressful in the morning. It’s not a mad rush out the door. It’s calmer. They remember things they have to bring, so I’m not rushing to school with what they forgot because they were half asleep. They can wake up more naturally, eat breakfast and be more ready for the day.”

What’s Next?

While the decision to change school start times cannot be made cluster by cluster, a vote can. “Each School Site Governance committee (SSG) would have to vote to make the change, and for us, La Jolla High and Muirlands would have to be in agreement because they’re so closely linked. If the SSG votes and it passes, staff can go to the district and say they’d like to have later school start times happen.”

The La Jolla SSG, made up of teachers, parents, administration and classified staff, voted down the idea in January because the only option was to change the school time from 7:25 a.m. to 7:45 due to bus schedules. “Our governance committee questioned going through all this for changing the time so little,” Lansky said. “The SDUSD board voted to instruct staff to educate the clusters and work on this, but we don’t know what ‘work on this’ means. We’ll have to wait and see.”

La Jolla Cluster Association meets 4:15 p.m. third Thursdays at Muirlands Middle School, 1056 Nautilus St. lajollacluster.com

An organization called Start School Later formed with local chapters across the country to keep this initiative moving forward. The local group can be reached at facebook.com/StartSchoolLaterSanDiego

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