top of the morning

One way to boost test scores? Make sure students get morning sunshine, new research shows

When teens complain that school starts too early, they’re not wrong, according to new research.

This comes as school districts across the country — including in Colorado, California, Indiana, and Tennessee — consider starting school later.

The study, published last month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, looks at districts in Florida and uses a novel approach: the fact that some areas in the state operate in the central time zone while others use eastern time. That means that if one district starts school at 8 a.m. Eastern and one right next door starts at 8 a.m. Central, students are actually heading to school at different times, relative to the sunrise — creating a natural experiment for the researchers to study how that affects student achievement.

Study authors Jennifer Heissel and Samuel Norris of Northwestern followed students who move between schools in different time zones; they expected that students going from Eastern Time to Central Time will see their test scores improve because they get more sunlight prior to school.

In fact, that’s exactly what they found, particularly for older students. When an older student moved to a district that starts school later, their standardized test scores improved in the year they move and in later years. The effects are notable, but not huge: roughly equivalent to the impact of a substantial reduction in class size.

The research finds that is driven by the changes in ideal sleep patterns caused by entering puberty. That means girls are negatively impacted by late start times starting around age 11, and boys at age 13.

PHOTO: Ntl. Center for Education Statistics

The study posits a straightforward way to improve student achievement without changing a district’s average start time: ensuring that a district’s high schools start the latest and elementary schools the earliest. Most Florida districts examined don’t do that, but if they did, the researchers estimate that it would improve average test scores.

Those results are consistent with past research, which has driven past efforts to start school later. As the authors point out, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting high school no earlier than 8:30 a.m., but as of 2012, the average start time for an American high schools was 7:59, with the vast majority beginning before 8:30.

One Colorado school district, Cherry Creek, currently starts at 9 a.m. for elementary school, 8 a.m. for middle school, and 7 a.m. for high school — precisely the opposite order that the research would suggest is ideal for improving achievement. The district just approved a move that would start elementary school earlier and middle and high school later.

When schools try to change start times, though, they run into logistical challenges: parents’ work schedules, sports event timing, bus coordination, and before- and after-school activities.

Indeed, the change in Cherry Creek garnered protest from parents, although an online survey of students and staff showed support for the changes, according to the district.

“If the new start time is adopted, young children will be waiting at the bus stops or walking to school in the dark/dawn during some months of the year,” according to a Change.org petition opposing the change. “This is unsafe for our young children.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Cherry Creek was considering a change to its start times. That change has been approved.

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”

Road map

A new guide aims to help Colorado school districts offer mental health support to students

First-graders at Denver's Munroe Elementary do a mindfulness exercise led by school psychologist Amy Schirm.

A new toolkit to be officially released Monday will help Colorado educators, parents, and district administrators infuse mental health support into classrooms and schools.

The 60-page online guide from the nonprofit Mental Health Colorado comes out at a time when many school leaders say they desperately need help addressing students’ mental health needs and districts have increasingly emphasized social and emotional skills.

The guide includes 10 key practices for promoting mental health in schools, including offering services in school-based health centers, reducing the stigma around mental health treatment and prioritizing suicide prevention. Besides listing effective curriculums and programs, it provides examples of how Colorado schools and districts are using proven practices.

The kit also includes suggestions on how to secure funding for school mental health initiatives.

“There are ways to do that and examples of how to do that because most people have no idea how to get the ball rolling,” said Jen Marnowski, spokeswoman for Mental Health Colorado, which advocates for the prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.

Leaders in the Jeffco and the Estes Park districts are among those who’ve expressed enthusiasm about the toolkit so far.

“It’s great. It’s the right work,” said Jon Widmier, Jeffco’s student services director.

He said the kit, which the district will pilot in two elementary schools next year, lines up with the district’s emphasis on educating the whole child.

“The mental health piece of that is huge … This is so right in line with what we’re trying to accomplish on that,” he said.

Marnowski said the genesis of the toolkit was a listening tour the organization conducted in communities across Colorado two years ago. The group’s leaders heard from parents, educators, public officials and law enforcement officers who voiced concerns about the lack of access to mental health care, the desire for more mental health support in schools, and the state’s high suicide rate.

The toolkit is meant to give districts a roadmap from addressing some of the problems community members cited.

“Kids are in school so many hours a day that’s it’s very effective to do this when they’re [there], to get them the help they need,” she said.

Widmier said he sees the kit as a useful tool for all kinds of districts.

“We’re very fortunate in Jeffco because we ‘ve got a school board that really supports the mental health needs of our students … There’s a lot of school districts out there that haven’t focused on it that much and I think this is going to be such a great resource for them as well.”