Sleep, Science and the Somerville Public School Schedule

somerville high school

As more scientific data on teen sleep health has become available, schools across the country are looking to adjust their high school start times. Schools in 44 states have already adopted or will adopt a later start time, according to the nonprofit organization Start School Later.

Massachusetts is no exception. Newton formed a working group this academic year to assess options for making high school students’ days start later, and the Middlesex League Superintendents—a group of 12 school districts that includes Arlington, Melrose and Watertown—pledged to have their schools start at or after 8 a.m. by the fall of 2018. The Massachusetts Medical Society passed a resolution in December stating that middle and high school classes should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Pediatrician Terence McAllister, a Carver resident who was instrumental in bringing about the medical society’s resolution, explains that as high school start times have gotten earlier, students have suffered.

“School start times over the past 15 to 20 years have been pushed earlier and earlier with the expectation that adolescents would just go to bed earlier and could still get the same amount of sleep and would be fine,” McAllister says. “The problem is, the science shows that adolescents’ natural body rhythms just don’t work that way. They’re naturally driven to stay up later and to sleep later.”

Chronic sleep deprivation has numerous health impacts. Lack of sleep can make it harder for students to concentrate, McAllister says, which leads to poorer academic and athletic performance. Depression, obesity and absenteeism go up, and students are more prone to peer pressure. There’s even an increase in car accidents.

“High schoolers who are driving to school drowsy, it’s similar to driving drunk—your reflexes are equally suppressed,” McAllister says.

In Somerville’s 2014 student health survey, about a third of students reported experiencing depression in the previous year. Another third described themselves as overweight.

Somerville High School starts at 7:55 a.m., 35 minutes earlier than the Massachusetts Medical Society recommends, and ends around 2:30 p.m. In 2015, the school had over a 24 percent chronic absenteeism rate, about six percent higher than the state average, according to information provided by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

Superintendent Mary Skipper says that the district does not currently have plans to formally look into shifting the high school start time, but she is open to having initial conversations about the move and would consider investigating it formally down the line.

Like many other school district administrators, her primary concern revolves around logistics.

“One of the challenges is meeting the needs of all students,” Skipper says. “A later start time would then mean that they’re getting out later. That cuts into areas such as sports. We also have a number of students who have work obligations in the after-school hours. A number of our students are caretakers, helping out with an elderly relative or with their siblings. Time is finite, so these are all the things you have to look at.”

McAllister is aware of the issues that a later start time would pose, but believes that school administrators will have to tackle the challenges head-on.

“They’re very valid concerns, the logistics of switching school times is a huge hurdle to overcome,” he says. “But when you look at the downside of making these kids sleep deprived, it’s something that’s truly necessary. The science really backs that up.”

Due to concerns like Skipper’s about afterschool commitments, the Newton high school start time working group wrote in its year-end presentation that the best potential types of changes would “maximize change in the morning and minimize change in the afternoon.”

The district’s possible scenarios include moves such as shortening summer break on both ends, switching high school and elementary school start times and shifting all schools’ schedules. The costs for these proposals range from $0 up to $900,000, with the percentage of students who would have the opportunity to sleep at least eight hours ranging from 57 percent to 98 percent.

McAllister has several ideas for how districts could compensate for the later start time. A shorter school day could be balanced by a year-round schedule, or at least a longer school year. Buses could drop off high school students first and elementary school students last, rather than the other way around, since younger children are able to fall asleep and get up earlier. McAllister even homeschools his son, in part because the public school in his district starts at 7:15 a.m.

“These would be really big changes in the traditions that a lot of schools have, but again, when the school start times the way they are now are not healthy, are not good for adolescents, then we have to find some sort of solution, even though it will be very difficult,” McAllister says.