For most of her 15 years teaching science at Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Tracy Landboe accepted that many students in her first period class would fall asleep with their heads down on their desks. It had nothing to do with her instruction. It was simply that her first period started at 7:30 a.m.
“Basically, I was teaching zombies,” Landboe told Edutopia.
Thankfully, that changed.
In 2016, Seattle Public Schools moved start times for high school students back to 8:45 a.m. The change was based on a large and growing body of research that suggests insufficient sleep among adolescents has significant ramifications for their mental health, alertness, and academic success.
Seattle’s decision came on the heels of an influential report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which concluded that “evidence strongly implicates earlier school start times (i.e., before 8:30 a.m.) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep.” Several districts in the Denver metro area followed suit in 2017 and 2019, and this year California became the first to change start times statewide, implementing a new law that prohibits high schools from starting classes earlier than 8:30 a.m. New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts legislators are considering similar changes.
AJ Katzaroff, a biology and forensics teacher at West Seattle High School, noticed a stark difference in students almost immediately. “They were more fun to work with because they absolutely had more sleep,” she said. “They had more cognitive processing ability to do the intellectual work of the classroom.”
Katzaroff and Landboe were among teachers in Seattle whose classrooms participated in a 2018 study measuring the impacts of the district-wide change in start times. Two groups of 80 students wore wristwatches that measured their sleep and wake patterns, kept sleep diaries, and filled out questionnaires related to their sleep and mental health over two-week periods in 2016 and 2017. The results showed a median increase of 34 minutes of sleep for students after the start-time change and a 4.5 percent increase in median grades for students who attended both schools. At Landboe’s school, in whose population nearly 90 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, there was a 12 percent decrease in absences and 31 percent decrease in tardies.
The findings aligned with previous research showing that later start times improve the physical, mental, and emotional health of adolescents; boost academic performance; and reduce destructive behaviors like drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and sleepy driving—leading to significantly fewer car crashes.
Despite the benefits, as well as data suggesting that later start times lead to better-rested teachers and parents—and have minimal effects on the sleep and academic performance of elementary school students who see their start times move up to accommodate older peers—making the change isn’t usually popular. A 2022 nationwide poll of parents, teachers, and other school personnel found that a plurality of parents (44 percent) and teachers (36 percent) didn’t think school should start later.
“Anybody who’s doing it has to recognize it’s a big culture shift,” said Clark Burke, superintendent of the Manteca Unified School District in California, which moved start times back in 2021. Burke said the change came with additional headaches for commuters, working parents, and students involved in after-school activities—a familiar litany of concerns that tend to come up when changes to school start times are discussed in local communities. “It takes a lot of adjustments from the community, staff, and students,” Burke said, cautioning other states and districts considering the change. “It shifts priorities; so there is a need for communities to determine what their priorities really are.”
Putting students front and center
Horacio de la Iglesia, professor of biology at the University of Washington and coauthor of the Seattle sleep study, says that if the priority of schools is to help adolescent students learn, then the logistical issues shouldn’t outweigh the vast benefits that students will gain from more sleep.
“Change is always hard, and the early start time for secondary schools is something that is sort of entrenched in our culture. It’s very hard to convince people—parents, even teachers—that this is going to be a good move,” Iglesia said. Still, he thinks the research published in the last decade on later sleep times makes a strong case for districts to push past this initial resistance. “I’m still surprised that the rest of the U.S. has not implemented this change,” he said.
Although many have gravitated to the academic gains his study revealed, Iglesia said, the most important finding is the more than 30 minutes of sleep that students in Seattle gained per night. According to Iglesia, the extra time is crucial because of a change in sleep rhythms that sets in around puberty. During adolescence, a child’s biological need for sleep shifts later by a couple of hours, driven by changes in the release times of the chemical precursors to sleep—melatonin and cortisol, primarily—along with other physiological adjustments that alter what scientists call sleep pressure. As a result, Iglesia said, teens are no longer ready to fall asleep at 9 p.m, 10 p.m., or even 11 p.m. Instead, they naturally fall asleep at midnight—or later, no matter how early you send them to bed.
A school start time of 7:30 a.m. that might work for a 10-year-old jolts a 13-year-old from a sound, biologically predetermined sleep phase. A recent article in Scientific American notes that this means teens who wake up that early will miss out on both restorative sleep and REM sleep. Restorative sleep helps repair the body and may improve immune function. Meanwhile, REM sleep is crucial for consolidating events and learning into memories. “So when a 10th grader who naturally goes to bed around 11 p.m. has to wake up at 6 a.m. for school, that teen is losing not only hours of sleep but hours of quality sleep,” the article states. “And even if they sleep in on the weekends, they won’t fully catch up.”
The biological alterations to sleep cycles disappear as adolescents transition into adulthood. Yet, Iglesia notes, we have largely designed school start times as if our teens are already adults. “Essentially, we’re making our teenagers wake up at the time when we think we should be waking up,” he said. “But really, if you have period one at 7:30 a.m.”—which means students need to get up by 6:30 a.m.—“that’s like asking an adult to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and be ready to process complex information by 5:30 a.m.”
Iglesia said that later start times are a “simple measure” to counteract this, and they increase the amount of time that students sleep from five or six hours a night to seven or eight. “Of course, it may not do the job alone. But it certainly helps and has no negative side effects in the way that a sleeping pill might.”
In her classroom in Seattle, Katzaroff said, she noticed that more first-period students are willing—and able—to engage in the rigorous work of her class now. “When you put kids into those content-heavy classes where they’ve told themselves stories like, I’m not good at science, and on top of that they’re so tired they can’t engage, it is no wonder why they check out,” she said. “But if they’re less tired, as a teacher you can fight off some of those stories they’ve told themselves about what they can handle. You can get through a bit more and say, ‘You can actually do this.’”
Katzaroff said that in the months after the enactment of the new policy, she regularly overheard students gushing about the change and also heard it while driving an after-school carpool that includes students who go to schools outside the district. “The ones who still start at eight hate it. They talk about it in the car. ‘You don’t have to be there until 8:50? I’m jealous. I have to get up so early.’”
Even Burke, who admits he is skeptical about the new policy in California, and questions whether it actually leads to real gains in sleep time, admits that his students, for the most part, seem happy about the change. “They actually like it. I would say there are definitely some social-emotional benefits for them. They’re feeling good, feeling more rested.”
A period of adjustment
When Rob Anderson, superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, first made the case to his school board to change start times in 2019, he tried to be realistic. “I told them: This is going to be difficult. There will be folks that will be excited, but there will also be folks that are upset,” he said. “Basically, my message was: Don’t expect anybody to throw you a parade.”
Anderson said he’d gathered as much about the process from paying attention to places like Seattle, but also nearby Cherry Creek School District, which pushed back start times for high schools in 2017. He noticed the same crop of concerns reappearing and also noticed that the most successful districts seemed to address those concerns head-on when making the case for why the start-time changes were needed.
Many of the most vocal critics of later start times, school leaders agree, tend to focus on the changes to extracurricular activities and athletics. If school ends later, they say, the effects cascade through a family’s day: Football or band practice begins later, kids get home later, and then they do homework and eat dinner later.
In Seattle, Katzaroff said that in addition to the concerns around extracurriculars, there was consternation around the fact that high school teachers who were used to ending their day early would no longer have time to schedule afternoon appointments or errands. As a parent, Katzaroff said that later start times also created the need for adjustments when it came to finding after-school care for her elementary school kids, whom she was no longer able to pick up on her own. Burke said that in California he faced a lot of pushback from parents—particularly those who left for work at 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m. and could no longer drop their kids off. A nationwide bus driver shortage, meanwhile, has complicated the efforts to reorient intradistrict bus schedules around the later start times.
Anderson is convinced that this sort of pushback stops more districts from changing their own start times across the country. But based on his experience, none of the obstacles are insurmountable.
“It was tough at first. But now, we’re in our fourth year of implementing this. It’s just the way we do business now,” he said. “And you know what? No one has ever showed up to school early to protest our later start times. They sleep in.”
Keys to implementation
Christopher Smith, superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado, took part in the planning of his district’s move to later start times in 2017 and has overseen it since taking the reins as superintendent in 2021.
Smith said that one key to making the transition work is to commit internally as a district and discuss all potential implications. It was only after meticulously sketching out what the change would look like that he said his district opened the floor to engaging with parents and the larger community to ask for input and feedback: “What are your ideas? What should we think about as we implement this plan that we have?”
During the input stage, Smith said, it is important that everyone communicating with parents really knows and understands the science behind the proposed change. “From the beginning, we communicated that this isn’t only a good thing for academics and sleep, but also for physical health, and for mental health of students—something many of our parents were concerned with.”
Neil Anderson, executive director of the Boulder Valley School District and a former high school principal at the time of his district’s late-start rollout, agreed. As a principal, he said, his district prepared him to speak clearly about the benefits of the time change, knowing that his community would find him more persuasive than a statement or mailed-home bulletin. “Many parents come to principals to be the communicators and sense makers for them.”
Anderson recalled “raw” meetings during early listening sessions. But he said the meetings were useful because they allowed the district to improve their plan. When it came to athletics, for example, he made sure to provide flexibility to coaches to ensure that practices started and ended on time and never disrupted learning by requiring kids to miss class time at the end of the day, for instance. For teachers with children, he worked individually with their schedules to ensure that final periods ended before the end of the school day, giving them time to pick up their kids. He also created a physical space for their children to be in school and be monitored by adults while their parents finished their teaching or planning duties.
For parents who needed to drop students off earlier, despite the later start, Anderson said, his school opened doors at 7:30 a.m. so that anyone who needed to come in early could. “We wanted to honor our parents’ constrictions.”
Busing issues have been harder to solve—and in some cases the impacts are ongoing. “We have some lingering traffic implications,” said Superintendent Anderson in Boulder. “But we’re able to make it work. We just have to allocate resources and make them a priority.”
On the expenditure side, school leaders told Edutopia they did not see their budgets rise much due to bus changes. Research suggests that small increases in funding to busing and other expenditures (less than $200 per student) are needed to make later start times a reality—and that this initial investment comes with a 9:1 benefit-to-cost ratio for high school students and 40:1 ratio for middle school students, once you factor in savings to nationwide public health expenditures and the potential increased earnings of students in the future.
During its rollout of changes to school start times, the Cherry Creek School District partnered with National Jewish Health to collect data from students, parents, and teachers. The results not only showed a 45-minute increase on average in sleep for high school students, but also revealed that the change had minimal impacts on student participation in extracurricular activities—a major concern for the district.
“It was really important that we partnered with a research organization and we were able to push back out to the community what we found," Smith said. "We were able to say, ‘Hey, we made this decision—it might have been uncomfortable, but look at what we’re seeing.’”
Like other leaders who spoke to Edutopia, Smith said the initial pushback to the new start times never lasted long. “Things that seemed like they were going to be big deals really weren’t after a few months,” he said. “Eventually, people just got used to it.”
In 2022, Seattle, which had struggled to implement the new policy, considered moving some of the start times back toward their previous times. Katzaroff said the pushback was immediate. “The community was like: No way!” she said, which suggested to her that whatever initial concerns there were, they’d largely been overcome.
“On a case-by-case basis, I’m sure there are some people who say, I’d like more afternoon time, or something like that,” she said. “But as a community, I don’t think there is a lot of will to change things back. Honestly, I think most of my high school students would like to start later than we already do.”