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Later start times for Utah high schools? Medical science says yes, but logistics can be tricky

Crossing guard Heather Childs helps students cross the street near Hawthorn Academy and Westvale Elementary School in West Jordan on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016.
Crossing guard Heather Childs helps students cross the street near Hawthorn Academy and Westvale Elementary School in West Jordan on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PARK CITY — This week, the Park City Board of Education will take another step toward pushing back the start time of its high school.

A growing number of high schools across the country are making the shift to later start times, which experts say is more in tune with teenagers' natural sleep-wake cycles, resulting in fewer disciplinary referrals and, for some, improved academic achievement.

The Park City school board has determined the change will not happen this coming fall, but it has committed to an ongoing process of studying costs and other logistical changes needed to implement a later high school start time, a practice a growing body of evidence says is developmentally appropriate for teens.

A transportation consultant is scheduled to report to the school board Tuesday.

An increasing number of high schools across the country are making the shift, some of which have experienced the added benefits of reduced automobile accidents among teen drivers, anecdotal evidence suggests.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "insufficient sleep is common among high school students and is associated with several health risks, such as being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and using drugs, as well as poor academic performance."

Two out of three youths fail to get sufficient sleep, a proportion that has remained constant since 2007, according to the CDC's 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Report.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, carried a resolution during the recent session of the Utah Legislature that encouraged school districts and charter schools "to consider possible benefits and consequences of a later start to the school day for high schools."

"Teenagers aren't just lazy. They're in a unique time in their development that they need a substantial amount of sleep," Moss said.

HCR9 passed the Utah House of Representatives and was given a favorable recommendation by the Senate Education Committee, but the legislative session ended before the resolution could be heard by the full Senate.

Salt Lake City School District was already exploring the idea, which has been put place in some charter schools in Utah. Park City is the only traditional public school district that has embarked on a process to make the switch.

Moss said she wants to bring the issue back next year because it's clearly struck a nerve with her constituents, many of them parents who struggle to get their teenage children out of bed in the morning, let alone to school on time.

Last summer, when Moss posted on her Facebook page an op-ed column by John M. Seaman, a retired school psychologist who worked many years for the Granite School District, she was inundated with responses.

"The comments went on for days," she said.

On average, adolescents need 9.25 hours of sleep, but few get it. While some of this can be attributed to overscheduling, it is also a function of school schedules that conflict with the natural sleep-wake cycles of teens, Seaman wrote.

At the onset of adolescence, teens' sleep-wake cycles reset. They don't feel sleepy until late at night, and under natural conditions wake around 8 a.m. But only about 10 percent of teens get the sleep they need, he wrote.

"I just thought for years it was something we had to accept — sleep-deprived teens who didn’t start functioning until 9 a.m.," Moss said. "Then I started reading about schools in other states and some here in Utah who made a decision to go to later starting times."

The Park City School District has been ramping up to the switch, but making the change — even in a school district that serves shy of 5,000 students — will take money and planning to implement.

The district will need new buses, covered parking for additional buses, funding to operate and maintain the buses, and resources to hire more bus drivers, which may be one of the greater challenges, said business administrator Todd Hauber.

Between the purchase of new buses and operating costs, preliminary costs exceed $1.85 million but the estimates are being refined, Hauber said.

There are myriad logistical issues, such as the impacts on bell times at other schools and traffic along already heavily traveled thoroughfares in Park City, as well as challenges for extracurricular activity schedules.

Admittedly, change is hard, said Wendy Troxel, senior behavioral and social scientist for RAND Corp. and a nationally recognized expert on the issue.

"But when you have such robust science, let science drive the decisions," Troxel told Utah lawmakers.

Park City school board's actions have been compelled by science, Hauber said.

"There is strong evidence that this will make a difference in the students' lives. Hopefully the empirical data will come out at some point that shows what that academic boost was," he said.

For now, there is much more work to be done to fully understand how a later start time for secondary students would impact other students, school nutrition programs and even after-school employment for students.

The school board has developed two parameters, that high school would start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and end later than 3:20 p.m.

Still, there are many issues to work through before putting the plan into practice, Hauber said.

"In my estimation, this will come down to a trade-off," he said.

What works well for older students might not work so well for other students, Hauber said.

In time, today's elementary students will become high schoolers.

"In the long term, it will be better for them," he said.