Wake up sleepy head!

Later school start times slowly gain traction in Colorado

PHOTO: Ondra Soukup

When Denver’s new Northfield High School opens next August, its students will report to their first class more than an hour later than students at most other district high schools.

The school’s planned 8:45 a.m. start time is a nod to the growing body of evidence that suggest teens are hard-wired to favor later bedtimes and do better academically when school schedules accommodate their natural sleep cycles.

Northfield Principal Avi Tropper said the decision to go with some version of a later start was based on abundant research, with community focus groups helping pinpoint the exact time.

“It’s pretty clear to me starting a school from the ground up…it’s just an opportunity from the beginning to do what works for students,” he said.

While later secondary start times are relatively uncommon, the concept is slowly gaining traction among educators in Colorado and across the country. In August, the topic got a burst of attention when the American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, published a policy statement advocating for middle and high school start times of 8:30 a.m. or later.

It was news that grabbed the attention of Denver school board member Michael Johnson, prompting him to send the statement to fellow board members and district staff.

“This is something we ought to look at,” he said. “This might be something that we could do that would be relatively painless…and we might be able to bump up student achievement just by changing the schedule.”

Johnson said he doesn’t envision a districtwide mandate for later high school starts, but perhaps a recommendation with implementation supports for interested schools.

Giving it a go

Among the small number of schools that have start times of 8:30 a.m. or after are Cortez Middle School and Montezuma-Cortez High School. An interim superintendent changed the previous 7:30 a.m. start to 8:50 a.m. in 2012 and at the same time changed the district’s four-day school week to a five-day week.

Jason Wayman, the high school principal, said adding Fridays back into the school week was the more controversial change, but the later start time drew some complaints too.

“I’ve gotten mixed feedback. You have a lot of kids who need the sleep and you have a bunch of kids who want out earlier because they have to go to work,” he said.

Other concerns, all fairly typical in the debate about later start times, include sports practices being pushed later, elementary schools starting earlier and tricky districtwide busing logistics. Wayman said because the district’s longer elementary bus routes are now completed before secondary bus routes, some of the high school buses arrive late.

Parent Sheri Noyes said her son, who graduated in 2013, liked the earlier start time better but her daughter, who is a junior, prefers the later start time. It gives the busy teen time before school to go to dance or track practice, and still make time for additional dance classes, or softball or soccer practice after school.

“I think all in all the late start time is good for the high school kids,” said Noyes. “I know it works for us.”

She said some families with elementary-aged children didn’t like the later start time at first because their older children were no longer dismissed in time to watch younger siblings after school.

“It wasn’t too friendly that way, but I think people have dealt with it,” she said.

Starting this year, the Harrison School District near Colorado Springs pushed back start times at all 20 of its schools, after a committee studied the issue for two years. High schools now start at 7:45 a.m. instead of 7:20 a.m, and elementary and middle schools now start at 8:35 a.m. instead of 8:10 a.m. (On Mondays only, middle schools start at 10:05 a.m. and high schools start at 9:15 a.m.)

Christine Lyle, the district’s public information officer, said the late start discussion originated with concerns from school board members and parents about high school start times, but the committee concluded last spring that later starts would be good for all students.

While the new middle school start times align with the AAP’s recommendation, the high school start times are well shy of the 8:30-or-after goal.

Lyle said “We didn’t quite hit that with our high schools…I think we will continue to look at the data and study it. Obviously, we made the change before that recommendation came out.”

Anecdotally, the later start times are making a difference, though she said it’s hard to untangle the impact of the new schedule from the simultaneous districtwide implementation of “Breakfast After the Bell.”

“Our teachers feel like attendance is better, tardies are down, students are more engaged during instructional time,” she said.

Reviewing the research

Early secondary start times have long been the norm at many schools. But research shows that students with such schedules get less sleep than they should, and both health and achievement suffer.

The August policy statement from the AAP noted that adolescents who get enough sleep—8.5-9.5 hours a night is recommended—are at reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in car accidents, and have better grades and higher standardized test scores.

So why don’t teenagers just go to bed earlier? The short answer is that biology doesn’t let them. That’s because sleep-wake cycles shift when kids hit puberty, making it harder for them to fall asleep as early as they did in elementary school. Experts say it’s normal for teens to be awake till about 11 p.m.

“Everybody who has kids knows that teenagers don’t get up in the morning very easily,” said Johnson, who currently has two children in high school.

Only about 15 percent of the nation’s high schools have start times of 8:30 a.m. or after, and 40 percent start before 8 a.m. In Denver, most high schools start between 7:15 a.m. and 7:45 a.m, and none start after 8 a.m.

Change is hard

No matter how much scientific evidence there is to support later school start times, changing school schedules can be a hard process for families and schools. Aside from transportation, child care and extracurricular activity logistics, there’s plain old habit.

“My reaction is it’s probably inertia as much as anything,” said Johnson.

Even among the Northfield High community, which had no status quo to fall back on, there was some resistance to later start times. Tropper said some focus group participants said at first, “That’s impossible. It can’t work.”

After he presented findings from various studies, most people changed their minds. The school, which will have an extended day schedule will run from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. with mandatory daily physical education. For student athletes, that PE time may count for some of their daily sports practice.

Northfield’s scheduling experiment could be closely watched in Denver.

“If they have a later start time maybe that’ll get other schools looking at it,” said Johnson.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.