High schools across state consider later start times — could Tri-Cities be next?

A high school junior rubs her face to stay awake during an honors physics class. The American Academy of Pediatrics says school start times should be pushed to 8:30 a.m. or later, as many students aren’t getting enough sleep.
A high school junior rubs her face to stay awake during an honors physics class. The American Academy of Pediatrics says school start times should be pushed to 8:30 a.m. or later, as many students aren’t getting enough sleep. Tribune News Service

Making it to class on time each morning is a regular challenge for many students. That includes Kristen Ruff, a sophomore at Kennewick’s Southridge High School.

“I’m definitely a night owl,” said Kristen, 15, adding that the earliest she’ll go to bed is 10 p.m. “If I do have a huge amount of homework, I’ll be up until midnight.”

That presents a problem when it comes to getting to Southridge before first bell at 7:45 a.m.

“I try to wake up around 6 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.,” Kristen said. “Even then I find myself being late for class.”

The issue of school start times and teenage sleeping habits has been an ongoing debate since the 1990s. No Tri-City school districts are currently considering changes to their school schedules.

Two school districts west of the Cascades, however, have decided to start high school later beginning next year to better adapt to adolescents’ natural clocks. The Walla Walla School District is also considering a later high school start.

While such a scheduling change could provide benefits, such as better-rested students, school officials say it also creates other problems, from busing to sports to student lives outside of school.

“The current lineup isn’t just about convenience,” said Richland Assistant Superintendent Todd Baddley.

Walla Walla schools organized two community meetings in November on whether to start high school later and is forming a committee to make a recommendation to the school board. There is also an ongoing online survey for district residents to provide input.

Local physician Richard Simon has routinely brought the issue up with the district over the years, said Ted Cohan, the district’s director of business services. Simon provided information on chronic sleep loss in adolescents and school start times during the meetings.

“We thought it was compelling enough to push out,” Cohan told the Herald.

There were actually few days in high school I didn’t fall asleep in class.

Britt Henderson, Kamiakin High School graduate

The district’s first meeting drew about 25 students, parents and district staff, Cohan said. Many were concerned about how any change to school schedules would affect them, but there’s still more information to consider before a decision is made.

“The biggest tell will be the survey results,” he said.

The Seattle Public Schools Board voted in mid-November to start its high schools and most of its middle schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Bellevue made a similar decision in early October, after a committee made the recommendation in a 19-page report. A survey of more than 11,000 people in Bellevue had roughly three out of four people either somewhat supporting or strongly supporting instituting later start times for high schools.

The young and the sleepless

Sleep experts have long noted most high school start times fly in the face of an adolescent’s natural sleep rhythm. They may not go to bed until after 10 p.m. and need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep.

Many high schools around the country start as early as 7 a.m.

In Kennewick, first hour starts at 7:45 a.m., but students can take “0” hour classes as early as 6:45 a.m. Pasco and Richland high schools start just before 8 a.m. but also have an extra period start an hour before. Delta High School, the science and technology-centric school jointly operated by the three districts, usually starts closer to 8:30 a.m.

The result of such an early start to the day is exhausted students — a poll from the nonprofit National Sleep Foundation found 60 percent of children under 18 complain of being tired during the day and 15 percent report falling asleep at school. Academic performance suffers and tired teens are more likely to have behavioral problems, be depressed and get into crashes while driving.

“I don’t think anyone’s doing this arbitrarily,” said Kennewick Assistant Superintendent Ron Williamson of the recent moves around the state to start classes later in the morning.

Britt Henderson, 18, a freshman at the University of Washington, said he routinely only had six to seven hours of sleep a night when he was a student at Kamiakin High School.

He just didn’t tend to feel tired until 11 p.m. each night and while he aimed to wake at 6 each morning, the snooze button was a regular enticement, he said.

“There were actually few days in high school I didn’t fall asleep in class,” Henderson said.

Rhythm vs. discipline

Starting high schools later doesn’t come without challenges. One of the biggest from the perspective of Tri-City school districts is busing — there isn’t much wiggle room in current schedules between the middle and high school routes and those for the youngest students.

“There’s just enough time now to get to elementary kids,” said Richland’s Baddley.

Bellevue officials noted in their study of school start times that beginning the school day later, at least for high school students, could lead to $100,000 in additional busing costs because the current schedule of routes wouldn’t be sufficient.

Walla Walla’s Cohan and Kennewick Assistant Superintendent Ron Williamson said there’s also the issue of how a later start time affects the rest of the day.

Starting classes later means school wraps up later, limiting how much daylight is left for athletic teams to use for practices and games. Some student athletes would potentially have to miss more school in order to travel for competitions.

60 percent of children under 18 who complain of being tired during the day

Students with after-school jobs or responsibility for watching younger siblings could also face difficulties, administrators said.

Kristen at Southridge said she’d be reticent to alter the whole day just to start school later.

“It just seems like the first two periods is where everyone is struggling. After that it’s fine,” she said.

There’s also the question of whether starting school later will result in students getting more sleep at all.

Data detailing tardiness rates in Tri-City schools was not immediately available and that information wouldn’t necessarily note which students were late because they slept in or for another reason.

Generally, students tend to run late at two times during the school day, Tri-City school officials said — first hour and the hour immediately following their lunch break, raising the issue of time management and discipline to go to bed at a reasonable hour.

“I didn’t feel the need (to go to bed before 10 p.m.) but I knew if I did I would fall asleep,” Henderson told the Herald.

However, he’s maintained the same sleep schedule in college that he did before, only now his earliest class is at 8:30 a.m. Sleeping in is much less a problem, he said.

He and Kristen said it would still be good if districts looked more into starting classes later in the day — though maybe looking at ways to get students to stick to a good sleep schedule would be good idea, too.

“I think everyone could benefit from another hour of sleep,” Kristen said. “I’d still go to bed at my regular time, it would just mean another hour to sleep in.”