Sleep health science says teens’ overall health can be improved by starting school later
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When a student dies by suicide, Stacy Aldridge says, school administrators often say, “We have to do something.”

Aldridge, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12’s assistant superintendent of student achievement, says that’s how she and her colleagues felt when tragedy struck about six years ago at neighboring Academy District 20’s Discovery Canyon Campus, a pre-K through 12th grade school. Six DCC students died by suicide over a 13-month period spanning 2016 and 2017. 

Aldridge was a D12 elementary school principal at the time, and says, “My counselor and I would often ask each other, ‘What options have we not considered?’ or, ‘Have we exhausted everything that we have control of?’

“I will compare it to gun violence,” she says. “You hear time and time and time again, ‘We have to do something.’ Schools feel that same way about the mental health of kids.”

Concern for student mental health — particularly for those in middle and high school — is the primary driver for D20’s current discussions about moving its school start and end times forward for adolescent students. From 2011 to 2022, 36 students in the district have died by suicide, Sixty35 reported last week. 

There’s long-standing evidence, with research dating back to the 1980s, that teens have unique sleep needs based on their physiological development. Sleep medicine experts agree that school start times earlier than 8:30 a.m. for middle and high schoolers can seriously impact mental and physical health, safety and academic performance. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has held this position since 2017 and urged education leaders to implement later start times.

Start times are not the sole factor in improving students’ mental health, of course, but they are one squarely within the control of building leaders and district leaders, Aldridge says. 

In the 2020-21 school year, D12 decided to make that change, pushing Cheyenne Mountain Junior High’s start time forward about 30 minutes to 8:05 a.m. and shifting Cheyenne Mountain High School’s first period class forward by 60 minutes, to 8:25 a.m., while elementary school students start at 7:50 a.m. Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 — another Colorado Springs-area district that D20 is looking at as a model for its move — has later start times for middle school students (8:30 a.m.) and high schoolers (8 a.m.). 

Shifting long-standing start times, as it turns out, is not an easy task — no matter what, it’s an adjustment for students and parents, Aldridge says.

Since revealing its new plan in January, D20 has faced backlash from elementary school parents, whose kids — as a result of the changes — will have to be at school at 7:30 a.m., as much as 1 hour and 15 minutes earlier than they do under the current schedule. 

Some D20 parents worry how this might impact elementary school children’s mental health and ability to get enough sleep. Some felt their needs, and their young kids’ needs, were being ignored in the decision, and set aside for the benefit of middle and high schoolers.

But the science is very clear on the physiological and sleep requirements differences between those younger kids and older students who have gone through puberty, says Dr. Antoinette Burns, a pediatric sleep medicine physician at Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Breathing Institute and associate medical director of the Colorado Springs Pediatric Sleep Lab.

“Understanding the science is always the first step to this,” says Burns, who is also an associate professor of clinical practice in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Teenagers’ melatonin levels increase later in the day compared to younger kids, and even adults — meaning they naturally get sleepier later in the day, whereas younger kids get sleepier earlier, she explains. Teens’ “sleep drive” — as physicians call it — is also the “lowest that it will ever be in our entire lifetime, meaning that teenagers have the ability to resist sleep” and as a result, go to bed much later.

“So say you are trying to wake a teenager up at 6 a.m. — that could be equivalent to trying to wake an adult up around 3 or 4 a.m.,” Burns says. “This is not teenagers being lazy, or parents not doing their job getting their kids to bed on time. This is just how our bodies are made.”  

The negative impacts of teens going to school earlier than 8:30 a.m. have also become increasingly clear, she says. 

One study of adolescent sleep cited in the AASM position statement found that one hour of lost sleep resulted in a 58 percent increase in suicide attempts and a 38 percent increase in sad or hopeless feelings. (AASM recommends 8 to 10 hours per night for teens ages 13 to 18.) Lack of sufficient sleep can also increase risky behaviors, alcohol and drug use, athletic injuries, car accidents and obesity, AASM reports. 

Burns says that anecdotally, teen patients she sees in her sleep medicine practice are more likely to be absent from school because they’re exhausted. She’s also seen research that shows increasing sleep corresponds with improved academic performance among adolescents. (Aldridge noted that while this can’t be entirely attributed to D12’s later start times this year, it did outperform all other Springs area school districts on the 2022 state academic exams.)

That is in our control; We can change when students attend.
— Stacy Aldridge

“As we’ve learned more about the negative impacts … we recognize that we need to actually start to provide more education and understanding of why this is an important change,” Burns says. “It’s not to punish or to try to expose elementary school kids to anything dangerous. It’s not about who’s more important — that’s not it at all.

“It’s truly about that physiologic change that occurs, and when children are better able to learn and function, stay safe and healthy.”

Over time for D12, the shift became routine, Aldridge says.

“Parents have been very gracious in figuring it out; schools have been wonderful in terms of helping students and parents who have transportation challenges because of work,” she says. “In hindsight, I think it was a relatively smooth adjustment.

“But nonetheless, it was an adjustment, especially in the first semester or so.”

And there are several notable factors that made D12’s school times shift less abrupt and disruptive than D20’s.

For one, D12 is the second-smallest Springs area school district by enrollment — and has been for several years — with 3,592 K-12 students during the 2022-23 school year, according to the Colorado Department of Education. D20, on the other hand, is the largest, with 26,229 K-12 students this academic year, CDE reported, meaning thousands more families are affected by its time changes.

All of D12’s seven schools are within a 6-mile radius. So in terms of transportation, the district’s biggest concern with school times was traffic congestion from student drop-off and pick-up, Aldridge says.

And “buses, thankfully, were never part of the discussion” — D12 has never provided regular bus transportation to and from school for students, but only for those kids with special needs and for after-school activities and athletics, Aldridge says.

The bus schedule “puzzle” — and the way D20’s current, 11 fragmented start times stretch transportation resources thin — was something high school parent Katherine Czukas didn’t know much about, until she participated in D20’s committee analyzing start and end times during the 2021-22 school year, she says.

“I think the burden that all of those different start times placed on demands for and efficiencies in busing was a learning coming out of being there [in the committee],” she says.

Bus schedules are one of the biggest logistical hurdles for D20.

The district, geographically, stretches about 16 miles from Black Forest in the east to Air Academy High School on USAFA grounds to the west. The district buses students all across those boundaries to and from more than 35 K-12 schools every day.

That adds up, currently, to 190 different bus routes and about 7,000 kids (or 25 percent of the district’s students) using buses, D20’s Chief Operations Officer Brett Smith has explained in presentations and town halls with parents about the school times changes.

D20 employs 101 bus drivers and buses to drive those routes, but it’s been strapped for drivers for the last decade, Smith said. Other district leaders added at a Feb. 21 town hall that they’ve provided various incentives to attract more drivers over the years, but it’s a problem that won’t go away.

On a typical day, the shortage means the district doesn’t have spare drivers to bus kids to field trips and after-school activities or sports. On a bad day, when regular drivers are absent, that means cancellation of school routes, which can be detrimental for some students who require transportation, Smith said.

“For those 7,000 kids, 70 percent of them, this is their only way to get to school,” Smith said during a Jan. 19 presentation to the D20 Board of Education about start and end times. “Without bus transportation, they will not show up to school.”

And as a large district that’s continuing to grow in population, it’s important for D20 not to get rid of its buses, Smith said.

“That’s a position we do not want to be in,” he said. “We have the fortune of being a growing district. We are going to have to consider this [bus transportation], how we get kids to and from school during the school day as we expand.

“The only way to expand our transportation resources is to be able to operate on a three-tiered [start and end time] system,” he says. It would reduce routes and allow the district to only need 90 drivers, giving it 10 to 15 drivers to cover for those who are absent, and transportation for other school activities.

But a “non-negotiable” aspect of the bus schedule is that there needs to be 40 minutes between the elementary, middle and high school start and end times to give drivers enough time to finish routes between them, Superintendent Tom Gregory said at the Jan. 19 board meeting.

That gap is what’s creating consternation among the elementary school parents — a shift of middle and high school to later times will result in elementary schools needing to start earlier.

Burns, the Children’s Hospital sleep physician, says it’s not exactly clear why schools even started high schools first and elementary last in the first place — it contradicts the health science. The fact that experts agree on starting teens later is telling, she says.

“It often takes years of work, looking at decades of research” to create a position statement, Burns says. “This is not something that all of a sudden we’re recommending because we don’t know how else to manage mental health problems in our adolescents. … It’s not a knee-jerk reaction.”

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