Olympia School District considers later start times for middle and high school students

Olympia schools look at later and earlier start times

An Olympia School Board community committee is considering the benefits and challenges of changing school start times later for middle and high school students and earlier for elementary students to better align with natural sleep patterns.
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An Olympia School Board community committee is considering the benefits and challenges of changing school start times later for middle and high school students and earlier for elementary students to better align with natural sleep patterns.

When Olympia School Board Vice President Scott Clifthorne was campaigning in the fall of 2017, one of the most common issues he heard people raise was school start times.

Now, two and a half years later, Clifthorne and the Olympia School District are taking the first steps toward potentially moving middle and high school start times later, citing research that suggests teenagers who sleep longer do better in school.

In January, the school board created a community advisory committee — a public group of faculty, parents and community members — tasked with researching the idea and eventually making recommendations to the school board in the fall. They have created a five-question survey that asks stakeholders to rate how important the issue of start times is to them, as well as to describe how the change would negatively or positively affect them.

Although the committee is waiting until after the survey deadline to make specific suggestions, the general proposal follows national trends: Middle and high schools would start later — research suggests starting at 8:30 a.m. or later for teenagers — and elementary schools would start earlier to better align with the natural wake-up times for each age group; an essential “flip” from the current district schedule.

Olympia and Capital high schools now start at 7:45 a.m. while the middle schools start between 8 and 8:30 a.m.

So far, the survey results suggest overwhelming support for the proposal. At the committee’s meeting last Wednesday, the survey already had more than 1,600 responses, with 87 percent saying the issue of start times was extremely or somewhat important to them. Forty-one percent of respondents identified as students while 34 percent identified as parents.

The survey closes on Tuesday, June 11, so the current data could change.

The committee plans to present the results of the survey to the entire Olympia School District later this month. Committee Facilitator Clifthorne said the committee will reconvene over the summer to make a specific set of recommendations which they will present to the school board in the fall.

If the school board votes to move forward with the committee’s proposal, the new schedule would be implemented in the 2020-2021 school year, giving the district half a school year and the summer to organize the necessary changes.

Prioritizing student health

Much of the serious discussion around flipping start times emerged in the fall of 2016, when the Seattle School District implemented the change for their high schools and most middle schools. In 2018, the results of a University of Washington-led study on the district’s switch confirmed what many already believed to be true: Students were getting more sleep and performing better under the new system.

The study, which collected light and activity data from student subjects wearing wrist monitors, showed that students got on average 34 more minutes of sleep each night, and academic performance improved while tardies and first-period absences decreased.

Many supporters of the change see it as a way to prioritize mental health and academic success for tired, stressed-out students.

Rebecca Cornelius, a member of the committee and the parent of a Capital High School student and a Garfield Elementary student, said she supports the adjustments. Her high school son does not want to take advanced International Baccalaureate classes because he struggles to be alert at 6:45 a.m. when some of the classes are offered, and she feels he’s missing out.

Catherine Savel, an Olympia High sophomore, has been the most involved student on the committee. She helped create a video that discusses the scientific benefits of the flip and has helped spread the word among her peers.

“I know it sounds scary in the beginning, but I think it will definitely benefit our district in the long run,” she said.

Concerns and solutions

While much of the response has been positive, Clifthorne said there is a persistent question: How will this affect after-school activities?

“Right now we live in a world where if you’re on the debate team or the football team, there are frequently times when you’re missing class at the end of the school day,” Clifthorne said.

Even so, he admits that student competitors would be missing more school than they are now to compete against schools where the day ends earlier.

“But we’re really talking about hours, not whole days,” Clifthorne said. “We might be moving from a world where someone misses one-and-a-half periods at the end of the day to two periods at the end of the day.”

Steve Roth, a committee member, has three separate, oftentimes contradictory stakes in the decision: He is an Olympia High School teacher, parent and coach.

As the baseball coach, Roth is concerned about student athletes missing more class and what later practice and game times might mean for facility and field availability. But as a science teacher, Roth thinks the research is convincing.

“My first period is full of bright, academic kids. But they are very much not ready to go when the bell rings,” Roth said. “So I have to weigh both pros and cons.”

Roth and Clifthorne suggest a more structured scheduling system that would put high-impact classes like math and science at the beginning of the day for student athletes, as well as offering extra help to students missing class for activities.

Other concerns raised in the survey results included:

  • Facility availability;
  • Busing logistics;
  • Shorter shift times for employees at before- and after-school care programs such as Y-Care and the Boys & Girls Club;
  • Safety of elementary students at early morning bus stops in the dark winter months; and
  • Families with multiple children losing the ability to have older kids watch younger kids after school.

“We know other school districts have figured it out,” Clifthorne said at Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s about asking the right questions to find the solutions.”

After the committee’s initial presentation to the board later this month, they plan to send out a second, more detailed survey to start brainstorming how to solve people’s concerns.

Subcommittees also have been trying to anticipate and respond to unavoidable operational challenges, like changing bus schedules and food deliveries. Committee representatives have met with the head of the transportation department and the head of food services. While both raised concerns that would need to be solved, neither saw the shift as impossible to make.

What comes next

The change would not be completely unprecedented. In 2009-2010, the North Thurston School District moved middle school times up to 9:20 a.m. as a way to cut costs. Courtney Schrieve, executive director of public relations for the district, said while the change was difficult at first, people seem to have adjusted.

“I think any change that impacts working families and schedules is hard,” Schrieve said. “There is no perfect schedule, but we try to balance all the factors at play.”

While there has been some discussion in North Thurston about studying the possibility of further adjusting start times, no specifics have emerged yet, Schrieve said.

A representative for Tumwater School District said they are not considering any schedule changes at this time.

Olympia School District Superintendent Patrick Murphy is familiar with a changing schedule’s effects on working families. He previously served as assistant superintendent in Edmonds, a district that went through the same process trying to implement later start times. However, that district couldn’t make it work in the long run for a “variety of reasons,” according to Murphy.

“I think it’s a good idea for student health,” Murphy said, “but we have to be thoughtful about how we do it.”

Should the school board vote to approve the schedule changes in the fall, the advisory committee will switch gears and focus on their second task — possible changes to the academic calendar.

The committee will examine ways to condense the 12-week summer break into more frequent breaks within the school year. Proponents for the change argue that the long summer break causes learning loss for students.

“That’s a much bigger project,” Clifthorne said. “All districts getting on board — I think that’s what it would take. “