BY PETER JONES
The first bell will be ringing a little later for Littleton Public Schools’ teenagers next school year.
Acknowledging the prevailing scientific consensus that high school students need more time to sleep in the morning, the LPS Board of Education voted unanimously Dec. 14 to reconfigure school start times districtwide, beginning August 2018, in order to get teenagers to their desks a little later.
Following the lead of Cherry Creek Schools, which put its own similar changes into practice this fall, the LPS board approved one of two recommended scenarios proposed this year by the district’s Long-Range Planning Committee.
“This was not an easy decision for me, but I believe in the research,” Board of Education President Jack Reutzel said.
The changes, effective with the 2018-19 schoolyear, are as follows:
• High schools will start school at 8:30 a.m. and end at 3:31 p.m.
• Middle schools will start school at 8:54 a.m. and end at 3:50 p.m.
• Most elementary schools will start school at 8 a.m. and end at 2:43 p.m.
• Centennial and Field elementary will start at 7:50 a.m. and end at 2:58 p.m. and 3:03 p.m., respectively
The changes have followed months of research analysis, expert and parent presentations and extensive opportunities for school-community input through public forums, open houses and surveys.
During the meeting where the vote was taken, school-board members noted that over the past several years LPS has made a commitment to address the mental health and wellness of students, agreeing that start times should better align with what research says about adolescent sleep patterns.
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, their grades and standardized test scores go up, with the lowest-scoring students being the ones that show the biggest jump on their report cards, according to at least one analysis.
According to Dr. Lisa Meltzer, an adolescent-sleep expert at National Jewish Health who consulted with LPS, the timing of melatonin release during puberty is delayed by up to two hours, often making it difficult for teens to fall asleep early enough to get needed sleep before the alarm clock rings.
In other words, when a teen is expected to get up at 6 a.m., it is equivalent to asking an adult to wake at 4 a.m.
“An adolescent’s brain is biologically asleep at the time we ask them to wake up, often get behind the wheel of a car, and go to school and learn,” LPS said in its official announcement.
In the end, the LPS board selected one of the Long-Range Planning Committee’s two proposed alternatives—Option 1, the scenario that moved up middle and high school times the farthest, a full 70 minutes, a change that will have ripple effects across the district in everything from school-bus schedules to afterschool activities.
“I believe that the challenges related to Option 1 are solvable,” Reutzel said. “I trust our superintendent, his team, our principals and teachers to make it work. We all are guided by the same north star, which is to do the best thing for our students.”
LPS families with younger children will be affected because elementary schools—whose students’ sleep schedules are more flexible than adolescents’—will start up to 50 minutes earlier than they do now.
LPS Superintendent Brian Ewert said the district is committed to making such interconnected changes work.
“School leaders and teachers solve problems every day. It’s what we do,” he said. “This change is the right thing to do for our teenagers. It absolutely will make a difference. I’m confident we can make it work.”
According to most prevailing research, later school start times have a positive impact on teens’ alertness, mental health, wellness and behavior, which means students are better prepared to learn. The new start times also align with research that says teens sleep patterns are much different than those of their younger brothers and sisters.
According to Reutzel, the change in start times will be just the beginning of the district recognizing realities of the adolescent brain.
“We as a board are committed to looking at the other factors that contribute to the mental health of our teens, things we can influence such as homework, screen time, social media and the tendency to overschedule our kids,” the board president said. “We will need parents to partner with us and help us in these efforts.”
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