A solid eight hours of sleep for a teenager at night apparently makes for a better classroom in the morning.
Preliminary results show that moving high school start times in the 55,000-student Cherry Creek School District more than an hour later is producing better rested and more engaged students, according to a top sleep researcher.
And while it’s too early to tell whether those bright-eyed young adults will produce better test scores, surveys of students, parents and teachers all point to a marked change in the attitudes in classrooms since Cherry Creek changed start times last school year, Superintendent Scott Siegfried said.
“I don’t know how many kids in high school have come up to me and told me, ‘You have changed my life,’ ” Siegfried said.
That extra hour of sleep made mornings much easier for the 15-year-old son of Chad and Tanya Bond, who are teachers and coaches in the district.
“Before there was some anger management issues in the morning, but it’s a lot smoother in the mornings now,” Chad Bond said. “He’s more focused and ready for the day.”
Before the school board made the change in March 2017, high school students had to be at their desks by 7:10 a.m., while middle schoolers got to school between 7:50 a.m. and 8:10 a.m. and elementary-age students showed up at 9 a.m.
But work done by sleep researchers convinced the district that granting an extra hour for teens to complete a full sleep cycle would yield benefits in the classroom. The new schedule now puts high schoolers in the classroom at 8:20 a.m.. Middle school get underway at 8:50 a.m., and elementary students are the first to class at 8 a.m.
That extra time in the sack gives the American teen the eight hours needed to be refreshed and able to soak up knowledge, Siegfried said.
“You have kids staying up about 13 minutes later at night, but sleeping an hour longer in the morning. They are getting the sleep they are needing,” he said. “Of course, we always hear ‘Well, just take away their cellphones and make them go to bed at 10 p.m.,’ but it doesn’t work that way.”
That’s because sleep is largely governed by melatonin, a hormone released by the brain that controls the internal clock and prepares the body for sleeping, said Lisa Meltzer, an adolescent sleep expert at National Jewish Health who studied the switch at Cherry Creek and produced the district’s preliminary findings.
During puberty, the timing of the melatonin release is delayed by up to two hours.
“This makes it nearly impossible for teens to fall asleep early,” Meltzer said. “And it is especially difficult for teens to function in the morning hours, such that when we ask a teen to wake up at 6 a.m. That’s like asking an adult to wake up at 4 a.m.”
An adolescent’s brain is biologically asleep at the time adults and schools ask them to wake up, making it difficult for them to get behind the wheel of a car or learn calculus, she said.
Still, more than 85 percent of public schools still start before 8:30 a.m. Many schools are reluctant to make the change because of concerns about the timing of athletic and other extra-curricular events and transportation.
Siegfried said there were adjustments made, especially in bus schedules. Parents also had to make some changes in dropping off and picking up kids, and some sports practices were shortened to accommodate the new schedule.
But mostly, everyone is adjusting with an eye toward a common good, Meltzer said.
“The issues around the change are all grown up issues,” Meltzer said. “Traffic and transportation and work schedules, all those things are real and valid. But those are things grown-ups can figure out to make it work for the students.”
The Boulder and the Jefferson County school districts are studying delaying start times, while Littleton Public Schools started its new schedule this week. Like Cherry Creek, Littleton examined the issue for months before deciding it was time to make the switch, Superintendent Brian Ewert said.
The impetus was the 2013 shooting at Arapahoe High School that left two students dead, Ewert said, adding that pushing back school start times to allow students more sleep is one way to help ensure their mental health.
“We’ve been working real hard to get in front on the mental health issues facing our kids, and this is one incredibly tangible way a school district can help,” Ewert said. “And it’s based on real, biological science.”