Early classes for Oklahoma high schools common despite health risks

BY KATHRYN MCNUTT
Oklahoma Watch
02/05/2020 11:00 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Yukon High School students are dropped off in front of the school as the sun rises, around 7:15 a.m. Studies show that high school students typically perform better when school starts at 8:30 a.m., allowing them to get more sleep. WHITNEY BRYEN/OKLAHOMA WATCH
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Yukon High School students sit slumped over on a bench in the hallway waiting for classes to start. Many students arrive at the school before 7 a.m., with classes starting at 7:30. The district is proposing to move back the start time. WHITNEY BRYEN/OKLAHOMA WATCH
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative stories on important issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org. COURTESY
OKLAHOMA CITY – Ariana Bradley sets multiple alarms that start going off at 5:30 a.m. on school days, but rarely rolls out of bed before 6:30. 

Bradley is a senior at Oklahoma City’s Northwest Classen High School, where classes begin at 7:35 a.m. Her first class is Advanced Placement literature. 

“I’m usually late to first hour,” said Bradley, 18. “First hour I’m still groggy and tired.”  

For what is likely a majority of Oklahoma high school students, start times for school days are earlier than what medical experts and researchers say is best for their academic performance and their chances of avoiding physical and mental health problems. The early school bells often cause students to get fewer than the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep, because many stay up well into the night.

On many nights, Bradley gets a little more than half the recommended sleep time.  Sports and choir activities at school and church mean she often doesn’t get home until 8 p.m. After chores, homework and a shower, she usually goes to bed between 11 p.m. and midnight. 

Oklahoma Watch reviewed the high school start times for the 30 public school districts with the largest number of high school students in the state.

The review found that 70% of students in those high schools start classes before 8:30 a.m., with the earliest times at or around 7:30.

A study released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2018 found that 73% of high school students across the country reported sleeping seven hours or less on school nights. The percentage with insufficient sleep increased with each grade level.

In 42 states, 75% to 100% of public middle schools and high schools started classes before 8:30 a.m. Oklahoma’s rate was 77%. The study used 2015 survey data.

High School Start Times

Among Oklahoma’s 30 public school districts with the most high school students, 21 begin classes earlier than 8:30 a.m. That means a total of 64,680 high school students, or 70% of the 92,647 in those districts, begin their school days earlier than what national health experts recommend.

The health risks are alarming. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement recommending that middle and high schools start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” said Dr. Judith Owens, lead author of the statement. Lack of sleep also contributes to obesity and diabetes, the CDC said.

The pediatrics academy noted that teenagers’ natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.

A Wave of Changes

In response to findings, schools and states have begun moving class starts back.

In 2019, California became the first state to mandate later school start times for teens. The new law takes effect in 2022. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2018, saying local school districts are better equipped to determine their hours. 

That’s how it’s done in Oklahoma, which requires 1,080 hours of instruction a year but doesn’t specify start and end times.

But some districts have re-set the times. Tulsa Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district after Oklahoma City, flipped the starting times for elementary and high schools in 2005 to give the older students more sleep time. High schools start at 8:30.

Bixby Public Schools did the same thing this school year. 

“It really is what’s best for kids,” said Bixby Superintendent Rob Miller. “We have to give them the opportunity to get adequate sleep to be productive at school.” 

Bixby moved the high school start time to 8:45 a.m. and stated no activities could begin before 7:45 as it would “defeat the purpose of the initiative,” Miller said. 

Strong opinions were expressed on both sides and some people are still unhappy with the change, he said. One reason was that it forced the district to begin elementary school earlier, at 8 a.m.

Miller said most parents of elementary students have come to like the earlier start time because it gives children more opportunity in the afternoon for activities and playtime. Teachers already are reporting their students are more attentive, Miller said. 

“Elementary kids tend to burn through their gas tank earlier in the day,” he said. 

“The one group I tried to be very considerate of was parents for which this would cause issues with child care,” Miller said. School officials talked with providers of child care and after-school programs to let them know the change was coming. 

The school board approved the new schedule in February, giving everyone six months to prepare. 

Some secondary teachers don’t like that their school day now ends an hour later. It was time they used for doctor’s appointments and personal errands. 

But parents and teachers aren’t the priority, Miller said. 

“Ultimately, any change we make in our schools needs to be done through the lens of what’s best for our kids,” he said. “I believe it’s been a positive change for us.” 

Transportation Concerns

Changing school schedules can have a big impact on a district’s transportation system. Issues can include increased costs and the need to redesign bus routes and hire more drivers. 

“Transportation is one of the driving factors of this,” said Bret Towne, superintendent of Edmond Public Schools. The state’s third-largest district transports more than 10,000 students every school day. 

The district’s high schools begin at 7:40 a.m. Half of the 17 elementary schools start at 8:25 and the other half start at 8:50. Running all of the elementary schools on the early route would require buying 30 to 40 more buses and hiring that many more drivers, Towne said. 

It also would mean picking up elementary students starting at 6:15 or 6:30, and their school day would end at 2:30 p.m. 

“It doesn’t work for us right now,” Towne said. “The biggest holdup is picking up elementary students early-early and having no supervision for them after school.” 

But transportation isn’t an issue for Yukon Public Schools, which could change start times in August when it opens a new intermediate school and must adjust bus routes.

“Adding another physical site and rearranging grade levels at some sites meant we’d have to change bus routes,” Superintendent Jason Simeroth said.

Those adjustments made it an ideal time to implement the “long-needed” start times change that school officials have been considering for a while, Simeroth said. 

 The school board will vote on the proposed changes next month. 

Under the proposal, elementary and intermediate students will start school 30 minutes earlier and middle school will begin 45 minutes later, at 8:25. 

But the high school start time moves back only 20 minutes – from 7:30 a.m. to 7:50 a.m. – falling far short of the optimal 8:30 mark.

“It’s not as dramatic as I’d like it. If we had the opportunity, I’d love to start high school at 9:00,” Simeroth said. “Considering students’ work, athletics and other activities, that is as far back as we could push high school.” 

Sutton Clark, 15, a freshman at Yukon High School, said he gets up about 6:10 a.m. to have time to eat breakfast and get ready for school. Moving the start time by 20 minutes won’t make much difference, he said.

“I feel like we should get a later start than some of the younger grades,” Clark said. “The first couple of hours I’m not engaged as much as other classes … I have math first hour and I am totally not ready to do math. Some days I don’t feel prepared for that.”

Under Consideration

Oklahoma City Public Schools officials identified school start times as an issue during its planning for a recent district reorganization but decided to delay discussions because families were facing so many other changes, Superintendent Sean McDaniel said. 

“Research clearly shows that there are optimal times of day to start school for kids of different ages,” McDaniel said. “Although the research is strong, we want to be sure this would be a fit for OKCPS. My teams are currently gathering input from a variety of stakeholders and having conversations about timing and logistics for such a shift.” 

McDaniel said any recommendation about changing school start times next school year will be made to the school board no later than March.

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