More zzz’s may be on the way for high schoolers in Detroit as district weighs later start times

Teenagers in Detroit could sleep later next year if the city’s main district has its way.

Pointing to a growing body of research linking sleep and academic achievement, leaders of the Detroit Public Schools Community District want to move high school start times from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. The last bell would ring at 4:20 p.m.

“The research is overwhelming that it is best to start later than earlier when you are talking about high school students,” said Nikolai Vitti, district superintendent, adding that he believed the change would lead to better attendance and “more alert students.”

Union leaders haven’t weighed in on the district’s plan, which was made public for the first time at a school board committee meeting on Monday. The teachers’ contract allows for start times between 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. Vitti said the policy has been in the works for two years, and that principals and parent focus groups were consulted about the change.

A spokesman for the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the district’s largest teachers union, said union leaders plan to discuss the issue with Vitti.

“We have no comment at this time but we are looking forward to having a conversation with  Dr. Vitti about the proposal,” Ken Coleman said.

Decades of research suggest that students are more likely to attend school, pay attention in class, sleep more, and ultimately graduate if their high school starts later. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends high school start times later than 8:30.

Schools everywhere have been pushing high school start times back, from Dearborn and Berkley in suburban Detroit to the entire state of California. The promise of improved student achievement is perhaps especially enticing for a district in the third year of a major effort to undo decades of disinvestment in the classroom.

Research highlighting the benefits of later high school start times has been making headlines for decades, but school districts have been slow to change. The average school start time nationally is still 8:03 a.m., and many schools start earlier. In 2015, fewer than 20% of American schools started after 8:30 a.m.

The shift won’t just affect the district’s several dozen high schools. To make bus schedules line up, four schools with younger students will start earlier and two will start later. The biggest changes are coming to Thurgood Marshall Elementary School and Henderson Academy, which will move from 9 a.m. start times to 7:30 a.m.

Critics of the policy argue that changes to district bus schedules made to accommodate later high school start times can result in painfully early wake-up calls for younger children. While Detroit board members said they support the idea, they raised concerns about scheduling, asking whether the changed start times would pose a problem for sports teams or for parents who drop their children at school on the way to work.

“In the morning, parents are dropping kids off and getting on to their jobs,” said Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a school board member. But she added that the change could also be an improvement in the afternoon. “At the end of the day parents will be getting off at 5, so it’ll jibe really well.”

Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, a board member, also said that an earlier start time could pose safety concerns for younger students who might now be walking in the dark.

Vitti added that staying later in the afternoon could pose a challenge for some high school sports teams, especially football teams that make it through the playoffs in late fall, when there is less light. He said he spoke with coaches about beginning practices immediately after the school day ends.

The policy would reduce the district’s bus routes by 8%, or 30 total routes. That would translate to a cost savings of $814,717 next year.

“This is less about cost,” Vitti said, “and more about trying to give students the right start time in the learning day.”