Will later school start times mean more sleep or more hassles for California?



Atussa Kian, 17, a senior at Arcadia High School, said she and many classmates are short on sleep because of schoolwork — an extra half hour of shut-eye would be welcomed.

“It is quite common to hear others complain about their lack of sleep or the all-nighter they had to pull the night before,” Atussa said. “Students are encouraged to take up time-consuming extracurriculars and challenging schedules, which is decent advice. However, the physical and mental health of students is rarely factored into the discussion.”

Claire Judson, a 17-year-old junior at Claremont High School, said starting school later won’t make much of a difference for her. She chooses to get to school at 6:50 a.m. to take advantage of extra coursework.

California students, their parents and educators woke up Monday to a new law that will dramatically impact their morning routines. California has become the first state in the in the nation to mandate that public middle schools can start no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. The law, signed Sunday night by Gov. Gavin Newsom, has touched off mixed reaction among parents, educators and students from cheers from the sleep-deprived to worries about impending logistical hassles. It will be phased in over the next three years.

Groups in support include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the California Medical Assn. and the California State Parent Teacher Assn. They say that research supports the idea that adolescents will be healthier and learn better with a later start of the school day. Opponents, including the California School Boards Assn., and the California Teachers Assn., argued that schools and districts should retain the authority to set school times based on local needs.

“Start times are local decisions, which should be made by locally elected boards, based upon input from parents, students, staff and members of individual communities,” said Chris Eftychiou, public information director for the Long Beach Unified School District.

“We floated the idea of later start times with our constituents back in 2012-13, when parents clearly indicated that mandated later start times should not be implemented districtwide,” he added.

In Long Beach, many schools would be in line with the new law because most middle schools start at 9 a.m. However, most high schools start at 7:50 a.m.

One consideration is managing the transportation of students with disabilities.

“We have to make considerations for special education transportation, and we only have so many buses,” Eftychiou said.

Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school system, has run a pilot project on later start times at four middle schools. Three middle schools are starting at 8:30 a.m. and a fourth at 8:45 a.m. Most district secondary schools start at about 8 a.m.

Two years of data show nothing conclusive on a number of measurements including student achievement, attendance, enrollment and suspensions at these schools, said Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, the district’s interim chief instructional officer.

District schools already have had flexibility over their schedules as long as students receive the legally required instructional time.

At Social Justice Humanitas Academy in the San Fernando Valley, school starts at 8:30 a.m.

Not only that, the first period of the day has an extra 15 minutes built in. Teachers use the extra time to allow students to eat breakfast or to have them engage in a low-stakes small-group discussion related to the lesson of the day.

“If you get a kid rested and with food in them, the rest of that time can be more effective,” principal Jeff Austin said.

Austin, who was a government and economics teacher at the school in 2012, when it adopted the late start, said it did so largely because of science on the adolescent brain that backers of the state legislation also cited.

“We’re trying to make decisions that give our kids the best chance possible at doing well in school,” Austin said.

The school consulted with parents, some of whom said the change would be a hardship, but Austin said even those parents generally agreed the change would benefit students. The school opens by 7:15 a.m. so parents can drop students off early if needed.

“Getting a kid to school or dealing with how late the day goes, those are all technical fixes,” Austin said. “But you can’t change the adolescent brain. Families can communicate or give each other rides. Kids can ride bikes or skateboards. But I can’t make a kid be awake at 7:45 a.m.”

Austin, who’s been an educator for 19 years, said there’s a huge difference between kids at 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. “They just become a little more alert,” he said.

He said he would prefer to start even later than 8:30, but recognizes that his school schedule is part of a wider system that affects parents, teachers, athletes and others.

Yoshimoto-Towery said the the school system would be doing a logistical study on how the change in law would affect district operations.

L.A. school board President Richard Vladovic said the change would pose “logistical concerns in terms of after-school athletics but it may have merit. I really think it should be a local decision. And I would prefer that it emanated from students rather than research about students.”

School board member Monica Garcia said she’s concerned about new costs that would not be picked up by the state.

“A state mandate to change the school schedules impacts the entire city of Los Angeles and it will require careful collaboration between the school district and all its partners to adjust,” Garcia said. “We urge the State of California to provide resources for a smooth transition to the new mandate.”

Veteran administrator Sharon Robinson, chief of staff for board member George McKenna, challenged whether the research fully took into account the role that pervasive technology, including smartphones, plays in sleep deprivation — “students being on their devices all night, playing games, texting, etc.”

The law does not apply to some of the state’s rural districts or to optional early classes, known as “zero periods,” which was a relief to Jay Dugar, 15, an 11th-grader at Oak Park High School in Ventura County, who takes advantage of an optional extended day that starts earlier.

Even so, he could see benefit to a later official start.

“My school already begins at 8:30, which is a good time that most of the student body seems to agree with.” He thinks the researchers who favor a later start are on the right track. “I believe that over the next few years, while this law is being implemented across the state, schools will see these studies prove correct.”

Atussa Kian, Claire Judson and Jay Dugar are members of the Los Angeles Times High School Insider team of students who are interested in journalism.