Pushing school start times is good for students’ mental health and safety, experts say

Sleep health experts took part in a town meeting Thursday where most in attendance were in favor of a state bill introduced by state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) that would push back school start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

“We have to be good role models for our children,” said Dr. Terry Cralle, a clinical sleep educator who participated in the event held at Pasadena City College.

Cralle and other experts at the meeting cited studies dating back to the 1990s that highlight a correlation between increased academic and extracurricular pressures at middle and high schools and increased stress, problems falling asleep, increased potential for depression, greater likelihood to become overweight and increased chances of using risky substances to stay awake or deal with a lack of sleep.

“It’s a clash of very strong forces,” said Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom, lecturer and senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota. “It’s the biological demand of the teen brain to be asleep from 10:45 p.m. to 8 a.m., and high schools historically starting early.”

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She noted that at three high schools in the Minneapolis area that initiated a later start time, students reported “statistically significant” less depression and better grades. Also, a principal noted fewer discipline referrals.

In Jackson Hole, Wyo., where Wahlstrom studied a school district that implemented a later school start time, she found there were 70% fewer traffic crashes involving teenagers.

She said the main times of accidents were in the morning hours when students were driving to school and they were drowsy because their brains were still transitioning out of sleep mode.

Portantino said he’s been having ground-level discussions around his Senate district since he introduced SB 328 in February, but the meeting on Thursday was the first public event.

He said he’s received two letters in opposition, with each writer preferring that districts retain local control to determine how best to adjust the change if the bill passes into law.

“This is a public-health issue [that] has an academic and socioeconomic benefit,” Portantino said. “Students are more efficient in using their time [with improved sleep]. Their habits get better and become more efficient to do better.”

Patty Scripter, a La Crescenta resident who is vice president for education with the state PTA, suggested an outreach campaign be developed.

“We will have some unhappy members of the PTA because change is hard,” she said. “This is an opportunity to have better attendance and less discipline problems. It’s good for [the students’] mental health and good for their safety.”

Scripter said Davis Joint Unified School District in Northern California has already implemented a later high school start time. At first, it faced considerable opposition from parents, she said. Due to outreach and education, parents are now in favor of the later school start time and hope to shift the campaign to the district’s middle-school level.

In L.A. County, school start times are “all over the map” and have proven to be unhealthy, several panelists said, such as Santa Clarita beginning at 7 a.m.

In both the Glendale and Burbank unified school districts, most middle and high school students begin classes at 8 a.m., but some students enrolled in a zero-period schedule, where there is an additional period at the beginning of the day, can start as early as 6:55 or 7 a.m. But there are occasional “banking days,” when students start school an hour later.

In La Cañada Unified, students in seventh through 12th grades start at 7:45 a.m. every day except Tuesdays, when they have a later start, with the first period beginning at 8:40 a.m.

Sandy Russell and Lourdes Wang, both of La Cañada, attended the town hall meeting and were supportive of Portantino’s bill. Their families reside in the Sagebrush area, and they send their children to Glendale Unified. Russell’s son and Wang’s daughter, both sophomores, said they enjoy the “banking days.”

“That extra hour of sleep is very significant, and he notices it,” Russell said. “He wakes up happier.”

Matt Sanderson is a Times Community News contributing writer.

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