State study recommends later school start times

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A state advisory committee on Thursday recommended that high schools consider a later start based on research that shows teens benefit from more sleep.

Teens should get 8½ to 9½ hours and start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to align with their natural biological clocks, according to the report released by the Advisory Committee on Later School Start Times at Secondary Schools, which was created last year by the Legislature to study the issue.

But most secondary schools in the state start between 7:30 and 8 a.m., meaning high school students don't get the sleep they need. 

The committee found 26 districts in Pennsylvania had pushed back secondary start times between 2011 and 2019, and another 28 were actively studying the issue publicly.

Locally, Central York School District has been looking into a change over the past year, with a study for later school start times in its current three-year comprehensive plan, and South Western pushed back its times in 2006. High school students at Central currently start at 7:45 a.m., and South Western moved theirs from 7:30 a.m. to 8:15 a.m.

“If the research says it’s good for kids, I’m all about what’s best for the children,” said West York Area School Board Treasurer George Margetas.

While it’s not the only solution to insufficient sleep, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research has said it had the potential for the biggest impact because it would affect an entire district.

Some other local district officials were open to it, but were hesitant to jump on the shift without more study.

“There’s definitely some appeal; there’s some true benefits,” said Dallastown Area Assistant Superintendent Joshua Doll, adding that officials are considering a study for the district's six-year plan.

Assistant Superintendent Joshua Doll will succeed Ronald Dyer as superintendent of Dallastown Area School District when Dyer retires Jan. 1.

Doll was appointed as incoming superintendent at the school board's June 13 meeting.

In addition to looking at existing scientific research and multiple state and national studies, the committee also surveyed 600 secondary schools in Pennsylvania.

Based on the information gathered, some of the biggest areas of concern were how later start times would affect transportation, after-school activities, staff and families.

“Any kind of a schedule change would affect our families,” said Eric Wilson, director of curriculum instruction and assessment for Red Lion Area School District, noting every decision has a ripple effect. Red Lion Area high school students start  about 7:30 a.m.

Spring Grove Area Superintendent George Ioannidis anticipates concerns such as the effect on younger students, students who have jobs after school, before or after care and transportation. The district's elementary students start at 8:25 a.m., and its middle and high school students start at 7:25 a.m.

Spring Grove School District's soon to be superintendent George Ioannidis greets students while taking part in the high school's third annual Diversity Festival, Thursday, March 13, 2019
John A. Pavoncello photo

Central received some early pushback from board members for similar issues when it pitched the idea of flipping its elementary and secondary times.

More:Central York wants to be 'ahead of the curve' with school start times

Earlier starts and later dismissals could also affect bus drivers who have other jobs and coordination with private, charter or career and technical schools. 

School code dictates that districts also provide transportation to these schools if they are within 10 miles of the district. Senate Bill 591, now in the state's Senate Education Committee, would amend this law for charter schools to only need to be within 5 miles.

The committee noted in the report that it’s not necessary to have a complete flip or push back dismissal times with start times as there are methods of “compressing” the school day, such as shorter passing times  between classes.

But changing schedules could have cost implications for those who have to add bus runs, as with South Western, which increased its transportation budget by $50,000 for three additional runs.

But any costs related to the shift would be minor compared to the economic gains resulting from higher graduation rates, according to an analysis from the RAND Corp. — an American nonprofit think tank — cited in the report.

It determined the average return in the U.S. for every $1 spent would be between $1.70 and $2.10 within five years.

A 2017 study referenced in the report that covered 29 high schools across seven states showed that after two years of implementing later secondary start times, average graduation rates increased from 79% to 88%.

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The committee also found evidence of a 2% to 3% increase in standardized test scores, especially among disadvantaged students.

“The magnitude of this effect is equivalent to reducing class size by one-third, suggesting that delayed school start times could be a cost-effective strategy to reduce the achievement gap,” the report states.

California recently became the first state to mandate that secondary students start after 8:30 a.m., but it allowed other parameters to be set locally.

Ioannidis said he worries when he hears the word mandate because state funding should follow, and he would expect financial or organizational support from the state Department of Education in that case.

He also sees potential issues in a one-size-fits-all model, as some districts with similar student body sizes and bus routes, for example, might decide to implement a shift at the same time, and there would be options for that at the local level.

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“We believe that’s a local decision,” said a former superintendent and executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, Mark DiRocco.

For the state to use research that’s been around for decades for a mandate would be overreaching, he said, but “if the state wants to sweeten the pie with funds to offset the costs,”  it would be a welcome incentive.

Either way, if implementing a schedule change, it would be a big decision because the district would at least be committed to that change for a year, Ioannidis said.

"This is pretty significant" and would impact K-12, he said, so it would takes time and a lot of hard work to anticipate.