School Committee to consider changing school start times

Andover School Committee Chairwoman Shannon Scully 

 With two major school building projects on the horizon and an $82 million budget, first time Chairwoman of the School Committee Shannon Scully has a full plate.

Scully has added one more major undertaking to her checklist, however. She's starting a conversation about changing school start times throughout the district to give students more time to sleep in the morning. 

"It really falls under the realm of student wellness and mental health," Scully said. "The science really shows sleep for adolescents is really important and may drive concerns about mental health, stress, and general well-being. I think it is worth a community discussion about adjusting school start times."

"There is a lot of anecdotal evidence. Mental health cases are on the rise and that is not unlike any other district," Scully added. "It's not unique to Andover. It's really about trying to make sure adolescents get the sleep they need."

Scully said amid all the research, a TED talk she watched by Wendy Troxel, a sleep researcher who also has a teenage son, stood out.

"I know that I am depriving my son of the sleep he desperately needs as a rapidly growing teenager," Troxel said in her 2016 Ted Talk entitled, "Why School Should Start Later for Teens."

She continued, "I also know that by waking him up hours before his natural biological clock tells him he's ready I'm literally robbing him of his dreams — the type of sleep most associated with learning, memory consolidation, and emotional processing. Sleep deprivation among American teenagers is an epidemic."

Troxel said one in 10 American teens get the recommended eight to ten hours of sleep, and that eight hours is the minimum recommendation.

"Eight hours is kind of like getting a C on your report card," she said. "A major factor preventing teens from getting the sleep they need is actually a matter of public policy. Major medical organizations recommend that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m."

Troxel said sleep deprived teens have a higher likelihood of physical and mental health problems including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, suicide and depression. 

"During the Ted Talk, she makes the argument that not all sleep hours are equivalent," Scully said. "I think there is a misconception that going to bed earlier can solve it."

Superintendent of Burlington Public Schools Eric Conti gave a presentation to the School Committee on May 24 walking them through the process taken by all the school districts in the Middlesex League, including Burlington, Arlington, and Lexington, to change school start times. The initial spark for the change in start time for the league came from a Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

"What was troubling in the survey, we saw large percentages of depression, suicidal ideation, lack of sleep," Conti said. "There were just health risks that were frightening for us."

"We were not here to argue the research," Conti added. "The research is clear. We committed to having these conversations in our respective communities."

After listening to Conti's advice, Scully said she hopes the committee can meet sometime this summer to establish guiding principles to lead the district in a conversation about changing school start times. 

Scully said she hasn't underestimated the concerns families, students and faculty will have about how a new start time could impact athletics schedules, transportation costs, and child care. 

"I do think it will need to be a community discussion," Scully said. "I don't underestimate the disruption this would cause for families and staff."

 

Follow Kelsey Bode on Twitter @Kelsey_Bode.

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