In 2014 the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that middle and high schools across the country delay school start times to combat sleep deprivation.
“Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common – and easily fixable – public health issues in the U.S. today,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, MD, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement, School Start Times for Adolescents. “Studies have shown that delaying early school start times is one key factor that can help adolescents get the sleep they need to grow and learn.”
The findings confirmed what some parents in Northshore School District had recognized years earlier based on personal experiences with their own children and from conversations with other parents. When parents began to dig deeper, they learned the science behind the teen sleep cycle backed up their observations. Those parent-to-parent conversations and observations on the ground were the start of what would eventually become a ten-year journey advocating for later high school start times in Northshore schools.
Eastside Education Network sat down with two parent leaders from that effort, Wendy Reynolds and Annette Whelan, to learn more about their advocacy and what parents can take away from their work.
Reynolds is a long-time parent leader in the effort, getting involved when her now eighth grade daughter was a second grader, while Whelan first got involved in 2011. Both were concerned that early start times in high school adversely impacted adolescent health and academic performance. The pattern looked like this: teens arrive home from school mid-afternoon, grab a snack, do extracurricular activities, take a long nap, wake up, do homework, study for tests, sometimes socialize with friends, go to bed before midnight then wake up early to arrive at school by 7:00 a.m. For some bus riders, this can mean leaving the house as early as 6.00 a.m.
When this pattern becomes routine, the whole sleep cycle of the child changes. Whelan explained that teens experience a feeling akin to a constant state of jet lag. Parents and teachers noticed sleep-deprived students were more irritable, tired, even angry. Whelan thought “there’s got to be a better way.”
But having a good idea, including strong research to back it up, and convincing a school district with over 20,000 students to adopt that idea are two different things. As is the case with much advocacy around improving our schools, even where there is broad consensus around an issue, making those changes can be difficult if not at times overwhelming. This is particularly the case when parents are leading the effort, given their limited bandwidth and lack of access to information about the inner-workings of a school district. “It’s unbelievable how complicated our education system is,” said Reynolds. “It has lots of moving parts.”
According to the Northshore parents, when they initially approached the school district about starting high school later, administrators claimed the increased transportation costs were prohibitive. And according to Reynolds, the school district pointed to the success of their high school programs as evidence that even if sleep deprivation was an issue for some teens, overall student achievement remained strong.
The Northshore parents relied on multiple advocacy strategies to build support for moving start times.
Social media outreach –The parents formalized their efforts through a Facebook group PALS (Parent Advocates for a Later Start). The Facebook page created an online community for discussions, and also served as a no-cost way to get their messaging out. Creating simple but effective methods to communicate was important because, according to Reynolds, “it’s so hard to get parents to go to school board meetings because they are scheduled at the busiest times of day for parents who have kids in school.”
Talking to everyone – The Northshore parents cultivated relationships with many community leaders and groups, such as PTA, teachers, and outside experts. These groups in turn helped lend their respective networks to furthering the cause. Reynolds explained that another group “Northshore Citizens For Transparent School Finances” helped the community at large understand the complex landscape of school district finances. The group’s leader, Ken A. Smith, an associate professor in the Department of Accounting at Central Washington University, analyzed the school district’s proposed transportation cost scenarios, all of which had concluded that moving start times would require a financial commitment beyond the reach of the district. Smith’s independent analysis revealed that the district’s cost scenarios were off by a considerable margin. That helped shift the debate.
Online petition – parents used an online petition to gather nearly 2,000 signatures in support of adjusting start times. Reynolds said the petition process was particularly effective because each time a person signed up in support, their respective school board member would receive an email message about later school start times.
Scientific research – one of the most persuasive allies in the fight to adjust start times was the medical and scientific community. Reynolds credited parents sharing articles, newsletters and research summaries to show the consensus around moving start times as critical to their advocacy. Put simply, it’s hard to argue with science. Whelan explained: “Getting the Board to understand the scientific reasoning behind sleep deprivation, that it’s a true health issue, is what made a difference.”
Community survey – parents persuaded the Northshore School Board to conduct an online and phone survey of parents, staff and community members. The results surprised even the most ardent supporters. As reported by Briana Gerdeman of The Woodinville Weekly, a majority supported later start times for high school (63 percent from the community phone survey and 77 percent from the parent and staff surveys). That survey helped galvanize the movement because the result showed the community at large – not just one vocal part of it – supported later start times. In that same survey, when given information on pros and cons of later start times, overall support increased to 69 percent from the community phone survey and 80 percent from parent and staff surveys. Both Whelan and Reynolds credited the survey results as a turning point in their efforts.
Timing is everything –In 2013, Kimberly D’Angelo and Amy Cast joined the Northshore School Board, bringing a new perspective to later start times, in addition to committed support from veteran board member Dawn McCravey.
According to McCravey, without the pressure from parents, the entire effort would have stalled at district offices. “The district worked very hard to frame this as something we could not afford during lean times” said McCravey. “As it turned out, the expense is not as much as the district had indicated.”
Northshore School District is in the process of reconfiguring to a middle school/high school grade configuration. That means in 2017-2018, ninth grade will move from junior high to high school, and sixth grade from elementary to middle. This major shift helped clear a path to fix other parts of the school and transportation schedule.
Finally, in its 2014 supplemental budget, the state legislature allotted $1 billion more in funding for education, including funds for transportation. That additional funding meant levy funds and other local transportation funds could now be used to cover additional transportation costs.
A Unanimous Vote
On January 27, 2015 the Northshore School Board voted unanimously to adopt Resolution 714 directing a high school start time of no earlier than 8 a.m. by the 2017-18 school year. The Board is now assembling a task force of community members who will help guide implementation of the new policy.
Looking back at their long journey, both Reynolds and Whelan offered this advice to parent advocates.
“Sometimes we’d hit a road block and everything would stop,” said Reynolds. “We’d get down. But we never let it die. We never went away.”
“If we had just backed off at any time, this would not have happened.” said Whelan. “It was very frustrating to be continuously pushed back, and there are times when members would take a break from it and come back. Other times we would add new people. But you’ve got to keep going. That’s advocacy. That’s how change happens.”
Want to learn more about the national movement to change high school start times? Visit the Start School Later website.