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Catching more Z's could mean more A's

Does Rhinebeck School District have the right idea?

The two greatest growth spurts in a person's life occur during the first few years and again at puberty. If infants need extra sleep to meet the demands of their rapidly growing bodies, it stands to reason that teenagers would also require extra rest to get them through this important physical and mental growth period. But our adolescents' sleep is being shortchanged.

Changes in Rhinebeck
Recently Rhinebeck School District undertook a three-year campaign to move their middle school and high school start times in order to help student performance. After rigorous research, numerous parent surveys and community forums the school district successfully moved the start time from 7:30am to 8am at the middle and high schools. They maintained the current length of the day at the elementary school which avoided negative impacts on students K-5 and did not cost the taxpayers a dime.

"Not an easy trick," reports Rhinebeck School District Superintendent Joe Phelan (now retired), who cites numerous roadblocks towards following the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) plea to help teens get more sleep.

Cost of transportation was a cause for concern. According to US News, school districts considering a school time change can expect to double transportation costs. Standard transportation practice among school districts is to use the same buses to transport K-12, with teenage students delivered first and then doubling back for the younger grades. Pushing back high school start times sometimes require doubling the fleet, especially if parents are not keen on grades co-mingling. Rhinebeck solved this problem by shortening time between classes to three minutes and shortening third period by three minutes so one fleet of buses can still handle all three schools.

READ MORE: Paul Schwartz discusses school anxiety.

Hoping for success

Phelan says, "As a precaution, the Rhinebeck school district specifically underwent a pilot program to allow ourselves the option to go back to the way it was before or explore other options." Overall the pilot has been considered a success by the school community and parents and as of now Rhinebeck plans to continue the program.

Interestingly, Phelan and the Rhinebeck School Board did not cite academic achievement as the leading motivator behind changing start times. "We were after a social and emotional impact on our learners which is very difficult to measure," explains Phelan. "We wanted our students to feel better about school."

Expert opinions

According to the AAP, most children shift to a "night owl" tendency during puberty due to a change in circadian rhythms. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) explains that circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. They are important in determining sleep patterns, so a change in these
cycles leaves adolescents falling asleep later and experiencing
daytime sleepiness.

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reports that societal demands, such as early school start times, and biological changes put teens on a later sleep-wake clock. As a result, when it is time to wake up for school, the adolescent's body says it is still the middle of the night, and they have had too little sleep to feel rested and alert.

Academically speaking, sleep deprivation leads to inability to concentrate, retain information, problem solve and sometimes can mimic ADHD. The NSF cites personal and societal problems linked to teen sleep deprivation include increased risk of "drowsy driving, emotional and behavioral problems such as irritability, depression, poor impulse control and violence, health complaints, and tobacco and alcohol use."

Given the AAP's recommendation of 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep for teenagers, a later school start time helps ease the sleep deprivation that has become a reality for most adolescents.

READ MORE: Bedtime routines made easy!

Late start struggles
When asked why Rhinebeck did not push for an 8:30am start time as recommended by the AAP, Phelan countered that as school start times vary wildly across county lines the arrangement of after school athletic game schedules would be a logistical nightmare if one school chose to start 30 minutes after every other district in our acceptable driving area.

If multiple districts take the plunge together, other aspects of scheduling could be addressed at the same time, such as a common high school bell schedule.

Parents often become anxious when their ability to arrive on time to work is threatened. To ease parent's initial concerns about getting to work on time Phelan and his committee decided to open the schools earlier with additional staff monitors so parents could drop their students off early if needed. By the end of the school year, Rhinebeck school staff reported less hectic traffic patterns as the drop-off time frame was extended easing early morning stress.

Some students are having trouble adjusting to the change. Eddie Tierney, a freshman at Rhinebeck High School during the fall of 2017 found the later start time challenging. He says, "I play Pine Plains Football and I wouldn't get home until 7pm and would have to start my homework. I was new to the high school and three minutes to get between classes was stressful."

READ MORE: 6 steps to bedtime bliss!

Sweeter dreams, better days
Although it's too early to fully understand the impact of a half hour time difference on Rhinebeck students, Superintendent Phelan explains that feedback has been generally positive during the 2016-2017 school year. Parents reported that their kids feel less stressed scrambling to make the first bell, hallways are mellow and students appear more relaxed and ready to learn.

Parent Kimmy Curthoys of Rhinebeck reports, "Liam, a 7th grader, was worried at first. He was not thrilled about getting out of school later. But the extra 30 minutes really makes a difference, definitely a better student, even if he has to stay up a little extra to do the homework. Mornings are a pleasure."

Kymberly Breckenridge is a freelance writer living with her family in Rhinebeck.