catching some zzzzs

Two of Colorado’s largest districts explore later high school start times

PHOTO: planetchopstick/Creative Commons

Two large Colorado districts are considering pushing back high school start times for 2017-18 in a nod to research that shows starting later helps teens get more sleep and do better inside and outside the classroom.

Officials in the Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley districts —the state’s fourth- and eighth-largest —say they’ll hold community meetings this school year to gather feedback from parents, staff and students about the potential changes.

“It would be our hope to go forward next year,” said Sandy Ripplinger, Boulder Valley’s assistant superintendent for elementary education and co-chair last year of a task force that researched later high school starts.

The proposed start time range would be 8:30-8:45 a.m. compared to the current 7:30-8 a.m. range, she said.

Tustin Amole, spokeswoman for Cherry Creek, said the district hasn’t settled on a time range for its late start proposal. High schools there now start between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, in Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, two years of discussion and one short-lived attempt to push start times later at 10 secondary schools haven’t yielded any changes so far.

In fact, start times have gotten earlier at one DPS high school. Northfield High, the district’s newest comprehensive high school, opened last year with an 8:45 a.m. start time and this year has a 7:45 a.m. start time.

Principal Amy Bringedahl, who was named to the job last spring, said last year’s later start time came with a 4:45 p.m dismissal time that created problems for students in after-school sports or with after-school jobs, and pushed homework and family time too late in the day.

Why are later start times better for teens?

  • Sleep-wake cycles shift during puberty, making it hard for kids to fall asleep as early as they did in elementary school.
  • Experts say it’s normal for teens to stay awake till 11 p.m.
  • It’s recommended that teens get 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night.
  • Research shows that students with early bell times get less sleep than they should, which is tied to lower achievement and higher rates of obesity, depression and car accidents.

A school committee of parents, teachers and administrators recommended an 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. schedule this year, said Bringedahl. But transportation department officials couldn’t accommodate the request, settling on a 7:45 a.m.-2:50 p.m. day instead. (While district-run yellow buses aren’t provided for most Denver high-schoolers, Northfield is an exception because city bus routes haven’t been established in that area yet.)

DPS officials said Monday they’re considering the possibility of adjusting high school start times, but provided few details on their plans.

“We know that this conversation needs to include school leaders and their communities as we move forward, so that any decisions are rooted in the needs of each school,” Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said in an emailed statement.

The push for later high school start times has gained steam nationally with increasing evidence that when school schedules jibe with teen sleep rhythms, students are healthier, more focused, attend school more regularly and do better academically. In the last two years, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come out in favor of start times of 8:30 a.m. or after.

A number of school districts across the country have opted for later start times in recent years, but the 52,000-student Seattle Public Schools is probably the biggest and most high-profile example. Starting this fall, high schools and most middle schools there will start at 8:45 a.m.

In Colorado, some smaller districts, including Montezuma-Cortez and Harrison, have pushed start times to 8:30 or after for some or all secondary schools, but large districts have been slower to join the club.

A big part of it is logistics. District officials everywhere say later start times for middle and high schools can impact elementary school bell times, transportation costs, sports schedules and students’ after-school obligations, including caring for younger siblings.

“It’s not as simple as saying kids do better when they don’t have to get up as early,” Amole said. “There’s so many things that go into that.”

She said Cherry Creek officials discovered how controversial schedule changes can be when they shifted middle school start times from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. several years ago. School board meetings were packed with protesters and eventually a compromise 8:30 a.m. start time was adopted.

“There’s a lot of things we learned from that experience that we have to consider this time,” Amole said.

Boulder Valley administrators said last year’s task force, which studied scheduling issues at various grade levels, focused on examining research on late high school starts. This fall’s process, after clarifying whether late starts are feasible for the district’s transportation department, will seek public opinion on the issue.

One open question on late high school starts—particularly around their effect on interscholastic sports— is whether districts that make the change will influence others to do the same.

“If one district has a later start which then pushes athletics later, would other districts be thrown off, or would they come together?” Ripplinger asked.

Bringedahl, of Northfield High School, said there are two strands of research to consider. Besides evidence in favor of late starts and well-rested students, “There’s also the research to show the more kids are involved after school the more successful they are in life.”

“It’s the push and pull,” she said. “I certainly don’t have any perfect bell time.”

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year

PHOTO: freestocks.org

A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.