BY PETER JONES
While Cherry Creek Schools adjusts to a later bell for high school students, its neighbor to the west, Littleton Public Schools, is mulling its own options as the scientific consensus increasingly agrees that the teenage brain needs more time to sleep in.
Officials continue to seek feedback from students, parents and district staff as the LPS Long-Range Planning Committee considers the merits of delaying high school start times by as much as 70 minutes, creating a ripple effect across LPS’s elementary and middle schools.
“People are asking questions about what does this mean for childcare, transportation or activities,” district spokeswoman Diane Leiker said. “The committee is going to be taking all the information and they’re going to be reporting back to the school board in November.”
If LPS decides to set back the alarm clock, it would be joining a growing number of school districts across the country that have adjusted their schedules in deference to scientific research. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control recommend start times of 8:30 a.m. or later for middle and high school students, though fewer than 20 percent meet that standard with many starting as much as an hour earlier.
Multiple studies show when teens get more sleep, it is their grades and standardized test scores that get up earlier—and the lowest-scoring students were the ones who showed the biggest jump on their report cards, according to at least one analysis.
Lisa Meltzer, a pediatrics professor at Denver’s National Jewish Health, recently presented such evidence to the LPS Board of Education, suggesting that later start times positively affect teenagers’ alertness, mental health and behavior.
Since transportation, afterschool activities and the logistics of family life are also considerations, the Long-Range Planning Committee has developed two scenarios, one that would jump the high school start time from its current 7:20 to 8:30 a.m. A second more modest option would ring the first bell at 8:05 a.m.
The less ambitious selection strives to balance the science of teenage sleep with the realities of family and school operations, especially within LPS’s finely tuned school-bus systems. An 8:05 a.m. start time would get high school students out of class shortly after 3 p.m., a good half-hour to 45 minutes before their younger elementary-school siblings would leave their desks.
“Having elementary children dismissed earlier than the middle and high school kids was problematic for some families,” Leiker said. “They really need their elementary kids to get out after [for childcare]. Parents have these kinds of concerns every time there’s change. We are committed to making sure we can do all we can to accommodate the needs of our parents.”
In contrast, the more ambitious first option would get high-schoolers out of school at about 3:30 p.m., more than 45 minutes after many of their elementary counterparts.
The district continues to solicit opinion. So far, more than 30 parent-community meetings have been held, with the next open house scheduled for Friday, Sept. 29, 5-7 p.m., at Powell Middle School. Nearly 6,000 parents, staff and middle and high school students took part in a recent survey about the potential changes, generally showing support in principle for the later school starts, but raising questions at the same time, Leiker said.
The district’s efforts come as Cherry Creek Schools implements its own much-discussed later start times this semester. So far, so good, says Abbe Smith, that neighboring district’s spokeswoman.
“We’re hearing anecdotally that students are appreciating the extra sleep and we are absolutely going to be looking at data over the course of this year and the coming years to see if there is improvement in academic performance and other indicators like attendance and discipline referrals,” she said.
Smith says the district has also been encouraged by a recent study by Rand Corporation that found later start times not only help academically, but may even make teens safer drivers.
The LPS Board of Education is expected to next discuss the issue in November, though it is unclear when a final decision would be made or when any potential changes in the school schedule would be instituted.
“It’s very important to the board to make a change early enough to give parents lots of time to adjust,” Leiker said.
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