During his time as Washougal High School’s principal, Aaron Hansen liked to stand in front of the school’s front entrance to greet students as they entered the building in the morning. Every so often a student running a few minutes late would ask Hansen, “Why are we starting school so early?”
That’s the same question several Washougal School District (WSD) staffers, including Hansen, now an assistant superintendent, have been asking lately and wondering, “Would it benefit Washougal students to start school later?”
Now Hansen, the school district’s assistant superintendent of human resources and Les Brown, the district’s director of technology and communications, are leading a committee that will study the subject and make a formal recommendation to WSD Superintendent Mary Templeton in early 2020.
“During last year’s strategic planning, the idea about later start times came up,” Hansen said at the WSD school board meeting Sept. 10. “It came up from parents and students within our groups and through the surveys we provided. It has come up in the Washougal community.”
Hansen referred to a 2018 study conducted by the University of Washington, which measured the success of students at two Seattle high schools based on sleep time.
“There is a fair amount of research around the social, emotional and physical health of students based on the amount of sleep they get,” Hansen said. “The research is showing that if you change the start time, students will attend more, and we believe if they attend more they’ll be more successful and academically do better. Socially and emotionally they’ll have more success and feel better about themselves and their progress. What we hope to accomplish is (to) examine ways that this change could positively impact our students.”
Current start times for Washougal schools vary. The earliest start time is 7:50 a.m. at Washougal High School. The latest is 9:10 a.m. at Columbia Gorge and Gause elementary schools.
Hansen told board members that 68 percent of Washougal High sophomores and 83 percent of seniors reported to the school’s most recent Healthy Youth Survey that they routinely get less than eight hours of sleep per night.
“It looks like far fewer (students) get what is really recommended,” Hansen said. “This is anecdotal, and I don’t have exact data, but first period is the most missed period at the secondary level.”
Washougal school board president Cory Chase said he favors exploring a start-time change.
“I’ve looked a lot at the adult work force with a 24-7 operation, and similar principles apply, I think,” said Chase, who works for the Port of Portland Police Department. “Stop-and-start times affect different age groups. I think there’s science and a lot of research that supports at least looking at … some of those things based on age and sleep patterns and everything else.”
Brown told school board members the new committee will consist of a representative from the board; an administrator and teacher from the elementary, middle and high school levels; a Washougal High student; and the district’s athletic director, Gary McGarvie, and transportation supervisor, Jesse Miller.
“There (are) challenges and complexities on all sides of this,” Templeton said. “Our intent with the support of this team is to come up with an analysis of the positives and the challenges and figure out what might work for us.”
The committee expects to present its findings to Templeton in February 2020. The superintendent could bring a motion to the school board as early ast the Feb. 25, 2020 school board meeting.
Brown said the committee will likely start working on the issue in October and reach out to the community with a survey and open house after the new year.
The committee members will look at recent start-time changes made by the Camas and Evergreen school districts, as well as the Seattle Public Schools District, which was the focus of of the UW study.
“We have models (to follow), and they seem to be working,” Templeton said. “We’ve been in close contact with Camas to ask them questions.”
Camas schools switched start times at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, making elementary start times earlier to get younger children out of school earlier in the day while making start times at middle and high schools later to help teens get more sleep in the morning.
The Camas start-time changes came after nearly two years of researching, planning, surveying and conducting community outreach.
A Citizens Advisory Committee in the Camas School District studied a variety of research documents, including “School Start Times for Adolescents,” published in 2014 by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“A substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety and academic achievement,” the study concluded. “The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports the efforts of school districts to optimize sleep in students and urges high schools and middle schools to aim for start times that allow students the opportunity to achieve optimal levels of sleep (around nine hours) and to improve physical and mental health, safety, academic performance and quality of life.”
Camas schools superintendent Jeff Snell said the change “has overall been a positive thing” for the district.
“In a perfect world, all schools would start at the same time, but there are challenges to that because we don’t have enough buses and bus drivers,” Snell said. “We basically flipped (our start times), so now elementary schools start earlier and secondary schools start later, and so far, so good. The research showed that (older students’) natural rhythm is to go to bed later, so we wanted to align those rhythms to give them more time in the morning that is critical to them.”
Hansen’s presentation mostly focused on high school students, but Washougal school board member Angela Hancock, who has served as a volunteer at several of Washougal’s elementary schools, said younger students also suffer from sleep deprivation in classroom.
“Cape Horn-Skye Elementary already starts at 8 a.m. (That) early, they’re not ready. They’re sleeping. They’re just as tired as anybody else,” Hancock said. “First thing in the morning, kids are falling asleep and (saying), ‘I’m tired.’ When I worked at Gause, (classes) started at 9 a.m., and it was a totally different story. We don’t have the same schedules in this district for all of the elementary schools. It’d be interesting to see how (a later start time) works.”
Snell said the main challenges Camas school leaders anticipated before switching the start times were disrupting parents’ schedules, creating potential safety issues when elementary students walked to bus stops before the sun fully came up during the darkest winter months and having the later dismissal times conflict with after-school activities.
“It was a big change because everyone schedules so tightly, so they had to adjust,” Snell said. “We saw an increase in after-school care request forms from parents because the elementary schools started earlier. We adjusted the community education schedule as well to align the program around the new start times.
“We came up with an action plan relating to areas of concern, adjusted walk routes and asked Clark Public Utilities District to install more lights in bus stop areas. And there was some pushback because sports practices had to start later, but since the Evergreen School District made the switch the year before, their schools had to alter as well, so there’s alignment to that. Plus, if you’re going to compete against a school further away, you’re going to miss some class time anyway.”
Snell said he would advise Templeton to “have the conversation, work through the questions and concerns, address those concerns and make sure to create conditions so everyone finds a way to feel good about (the changes) and move forward.”
The local districts are not alone in this endeavor; school districts around the country are examining their start times. The issue even reached the top levels of government in one state recently.
Last fall, California’s governor, Jerry Brown, quashed an effort to mandate later school start times in most middle and high schools by vetoing a bill that would have banned starts before 8:30 a.m.
The bill’s author, Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat representing the San Fernando Valley, is already working to bring another bill back this year, according to edsource.org.