school start times
An Edmond Public Schools bus proceeds on its morning route Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (Megan Prather)

Despite local and national research indicating that later school start times lead to better educational experiences for middle and high school students, the schedules of Oklahoma’s 500-plus school districts are far from uniform, with most districts spacing their elementary, middle and high school morning bells somewhere between 7 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. As a practical matter, schools stagger their start times in an attempt to balance multiple bus routes and parental preferences at the local level.

But some districts choose to launch elementary school during the 7 a.m. hour and allow older students the benefit of coming to class well after sunrise. Other districts, however, do the opposite. High school students amble into classrooms as the proverbial rooster crows, with elementary students getting to sleep in a little bit longer.

Decisions about school start times are made district by district, a reflection of lingering local control allowed by the Oklahoma Legislature and the State Department of Education. But with districts graded against one another in terms of end-of-instruction tests and controversial school report cards, questions linger about the optimal learning schedule for developing brains.

University of Oklahoma associate professor in educational psychology Benjamin Heddy studies the psychology of students, including motivation in learning specifically in K-12 schools.

“There’s some research in adolescent development that shows adolescents benefit from more sleep,” Heddy said, referring to pre-teen and teenage demographics. “As students age, their sleep patterns differ, which means they developmentally stay up later and wake up later. Holding them to the same schedule as elementary kids is not necessarily fair because of the developmental stage that they’re in.”

‘This can be detrimental for your health’

An elementary student performs tasks on a computer. (Megan Ross)

Heddy said questions about school start times are more important than a stereotypical teenager complaining about getting up so early. Recently, some of Oklahoma’s largest school districts have considered changes to their middle and high school schedules as a way to improve student experiences and outcomes.

Studies completed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine have shown 8:30 a.m. as the optimal school start time for middle and high school students. But in 2020, Oklahoma high school students hit the books on average by 8:04 a.m., according to data from the National Center of Education Statistics. (The average high school morning bell across the U.S. is also 8 a.m.)

Research has found that offering older students extra time to get going in the morning contributes to positive learning outcomes that include improved school attendance, better grades and fewer disciplinary issues.

“We’re starting to discover that environmental or contextual factors are as important, if not more, than individual psychological factors when it comes to learning and motivation,” said Heddy, who studies contextual factors at school, such as characteristics of teachers and student demographics.

“The reason I do this research is because, until fairly recently, most research has only looked at individual factors,” Heddy explained.

Heddy said it’s not as simple as telling adolescents to go to bed earlier, because they are biologically conditioned to stay up later. He said sleep should be treated as an essential component of students’ wellbeing.

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that there are different needs, and if they’re not met you’ll have a deficit in being able to learn and being motivated,” Heddy said. “Those needs can include food and water. That’s why we have free lunch in schools. If students are hungry, of course they’re not going to be learning very well. You’ve got bigger problems than math if you’re hungry.”

Like food, sleep helps form the foundation of the pyramid of needs.

“If you’re tired and you’re not getting enough sleep, this can be detrimental for your health, and you’re going to be (at a) deficit in other areas,” Heddy said. “What’s really interesting is, we’ve designed all these programs around all these other areas of these deficit needs. We’ve designed free lunch programs, we’ve designed anti-bullying programs, we pay for school psychologists and counselors and all these different factors. But we’re not really doing anything to make sure kids get enough sleep. I’m not sure why that is, but there’s room to advocate for it.”

OKCPS considers changing school start times

A slide from a presentation to the OKCPS board displays average classes missed by high school students per period. (Screenshot)

Within Oklahoma City Public Schools, district teachers have been advocating over the past two years for later school start times in an effort to improve their students’ learning outcomes.

OKCPS identified start times as an issue to examine during the district’s Pathways to Greatness planning ahead of the 2019-2020 school year. Experienced educators within the district’s Trailblazers team identified the concern and prompted district leadership to begin exploring an adjustment that would push back start times for middle and high school students.

Currently, most OKCPS high schools convene at 7:35 a.m., which forces many of the district’s teenagers to wake up around 6:30 a.m., or earlier. (Classen SAS at Northeast begins at 8:20 a.m., Emerson alternative schools start at 8 a.m., and Putnam Heights Academy begins at 7:30 a.m.)

Meanwhile, most district elementary schools begin at 8:20 a.m. The latest OKCPS morning bell rings at 9:10 a.m. for the district’s 12 middle schools.

According to 2018-2019 data presented in a January 2020 OKCPS Board of Education work session, the district’s first period classes saw 52,741 tardies compared to 14,133 for second period.

The OKCPS Trailblazers teacher group proposed the following adjustments for the district:

  • High school:  from 7:35 a.m. to 8:40 a.m.
  • Middle school: from 9:10 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
  • Elementary school: from 8:20 a.m. to 7:50 a.m.

In early 2020, district leadership began discussing logistics and gathering input from a variety of stakeholders to make sure the change to start times would be a good fit.

OKCPS chief of communications Beth Harrison said barriers to changing district start times include:

  • conflicts with after-school programs, sports activities and after-school jobs;
  • teacher concerns regarding scheduling and total work hours;
  • lack of awareness among school community stakeholders regarding the importance of sleep;
  • disruption of parents’ schedules;
  • inability for parents to rely on older children for afternoon childcare;
  • teenagers potentially staying up even later if they don’t have to wake for school at an earlier time.

With districts usually having a limited number of busses and bus drivers to transport students of all ages, changing start times can be even more complicated.

“The stagger in the proposed (new) times is approximately the same as our current schedules and we do not expect any change in transportation delivering students to school and their home as scheduled,” Harrison told NonDoc in an email. “The greatest disruption to service for the district is supporting daytime extra-curricular events that occur during daily route times and require the transportation department to pull drivers from their daily routes to support other transportation needs. For school districts statewide, there continues to be a shortage of bus drivers, and OKCPS has been and will continue to be very proactive in our recruitment and retention efforts.”

Ultimately, the coronavirus pandemic delayed OKCPS’ consideration of school start time changes. Harrison said the district hopes to revisit the issue in 2022.

“Research clearly shows that there are optimal times of day to start school for kids of different ages,” Harrison said.

‘It’s an issue of resources and lack thereof’

OKCPS Board of Education member Mark Mann sees value in the district’s start-time discussion, and he emphasized the importance of students ages 13-18 getting the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep each night.

“We know that the research shows that those teenage kids need that extra time to sleep,” Mann said. “Kids who don’t get that tend not to engage in much physical activity, they tend to have higher instances of depression. Unhealthy, risky behaviors and those indicators like smoking and drinking are higher in kids who don’t get that eight to 10 hours, and they don’t do as well in school.”

A parent himself who has seen a student change sleeping patterns first hand, Mann was elected to represent OKCPS District 4 in 2017.

“We know that having that later start time in the morning helps them get that additional sleep time and hopefully over the course of their life will help them be more physically active and reduce the instances of tobacco, drug and alcohol abuse,” Mann said. “They’ll perform better in school and just be healthier overall.”

Mann said the start times that school districts can offer their students often come down to resources.

“In Oklahoma, I wouldn’t say [start times] are a convenience issue for most districts. It’s an issue of resources and lack thereof,” Mann said. “If you don’t have enough bus drivers and you don’t have enough funding to pay better to get more bus drivers, you kind of have what you have and you have to work around that. I’d say most districts are a victim of circumstance. They’ve got what they’ve got, and they’ve got to make it work.”

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Edmond makes ‘a long overdue change’

school start times
The Edmond Public Schools transportation department is located at 1001 W. Danforth Rd. (Megan Prather)

If OKCPS leaders ultimately change their district’s school start times, they will be following in the footsteps of two neighboring districts. Yukon Public Schools and Edmond Public Schools both adjusted their start times in 2020.

In Yukon, some parents were initially frustrated by the change, but districts leaders focused on research regarding youth brain development. The high school morning bell moved from 7:30 a.m. to 7:50 a.m. The middle school bell was pushed from 7:40 a.m. to 8:25 a.m. Grades kindergarten through sixth moved their morning bells forward 30 minutes.

“The research tells you that the earlier those kids at younger ages start, the better they learn because they get tired faster,” Yukon Superintendent Jason Simeroth told News 9’s Storme Jones in January 2020. “Then, when you look at the high school and middle school, the later we can get them the better it is for them, because traditionally, middle school students and high school students don’t necessarily go to bed when they should.”

In Edmond, the reasoning behind the change stemmed from parents’ safety concerns rather than student learning outcomes.

“It really was a long overdue change,” Edmond Public Schools director of communications Susan Parks-Schlepp said. “Prior to that, we had combined middle school and high school bus routes, and we received a lot of correspondence from parents, particularly parents of middle school students, who did not want their child riding with older students.”

The addition of a middle school bus route changed Edmond’s start times to 7:40 a.m. for middle school students and 8:20 a.m. for high school students, 40 minutes later than the high school start time in years prior. Parents of elementary students in the district are offered an option of start times: 8:50 a.m. or 9:20 a.m.

Parks-Schlepp said the Edmond district spans 130 square miles. For the 2019-2020 school year, the district had student enrollment of 25,619, with about 10,000 students being transported by bus every day.

“We’ve got to have adequate times so the drivers can get to all the different schools, all the different neighborhoods,” she said. “It’s not like some districts where most of their population is in a much smaller area.”

Parks-Schlepp said the district has seen a significant decrease in discipline issues for middle school students since the change in start times. The district has also formed a committee that will start meeting next semester to look at the effects the change has had on students and families.

“They’ll be gathering data from principals and looking at what effect it had on the students,” Parks-Schlepp said. “We did tell our parents at the time of the switch that we’d monitor this and monitor the changes and the intended outcomes and that we could adjust it in the future if necessary.”

2020-2021 Oklahoma school start time data

State Department of Education data (embedded below) shows how broadly school start times vary by district.

The OSDE data show that Piedmont High School has the earliest start time in the state, at 7 a.m. Edmond’s 9:20 a.m. option for elementary students is the latest start time in the state.

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