A: To determine how much changing school times would cost, the first step is to have our Board of Education hire a third-party bus consultant. This consultant would analyze our district’s bus routes and come up with different start time and bus route options along with the costs of implementing each option. Even if Westport did not end up changing its school start times, this analysis could pay for itself by identifying ways to make our current bus routes more efficient.

Greenwich commissioned two bus studies, additional analyses, and staffing for ten to twelve on-site meetings, which cost around $80,000 total. Our study would probably cost less given all of the extra work that the consultants did for Greenwich and because Greenwich is a much larger school district, with over twice as many elementary schools and approximately 8,827 students compared to the 5,750 students in Westport.

Click here to see the bus study commissioned by the Greenwich Board of Education.

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Q: The bus study is too expensive.  Besides, we already have a transportation administrator on staff, so we don't need a third party consultant to do the study.

A: The bus study is not too expensive. Please remember that our current school start times harm our students' health immensely. This issue is not equivalent to determining whether to add STEM classes or improve our schools in other ways as part of the town's strategic long term planning. Like mold or lead in our classrooms - which our town has historically remediated immediately - our school schedule is a serious public health issue. This is why our country's leading medical organizations have issued policy statements that middle and high school should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. These organizations do not opine on the content of curricula or how to make our infrastructure more efficient. They warn us about serious risks to our health like smoking, ebola, and lead poisoning. We should take their policy statements seriously and act on them.

Commissioning the study also makes sense in the context of Westport’s prior expenditures to improve the safety of our students. For the 2017-2018 school year, Westport spent $65,000 to install seat belts on 13 school busses.57 It will then cost $500,000 to install seat belts on the rest of our school bus fleet.57 We have spent these funds even though, for the time period between 2003 and 2012, only 55 school bus passengers died in crashes.58 As you can see in the table on the right, for the year 2012 alone, over 3,000 adolescents died in motor vehicle accidents and over 2,000 adolescents committed suicide. The $65,000 we have already allocated to reduce a risk responsible for taking 55 lives over an entire decade is probably more expensive than the cost of our bus study.

In 2013, in the wake of Sandy Hook, our town paid $98,000 for a security audit of our schools.2 Yet out of all adolescent deaths, only 0.34% consist of homicides on school grounds.3, 4 By comparison, car accidents are the number one killer of our teens, making up 35.0% of teen deaths, while suicide causes 11% of teen deaths.3 Moving school times later has been shown to dramatically decrease motor vehicle accidents and improve mental health. Why would Westport spend $98,000 to identify ways to reduce only 0.34% of teenage deaths and possibly $565,000 to reduce less than .01% of adolescent deaths from school bus accidents, but not spend around $40,000 to figure out the best way for our town to reduce 46% of teenage deaths?

Moreover, the bus study should be conducted by an independent third party with expertise in this exact area of school start time changes rather than Westport's transportation coordinator. This is a different kind of analysis than those involved with the more minor schedule changes that we have implemented in past years. Creating an accurate and comprehensive bus study for our purposes here is, in and of itself, a full time job for professionals that have dedicated themselves to this type of analysis and possess specific tools and years of expertise in this area. Put differently, as opposed to handing day-to-day operations with occasional alterations in scheduling, as our transportation administrator does every day, the bus study would be a complex, mulitvariate analysis where the output would be a detailed report that, depending on what constraints we give to the bus consultants, could have 20 or more start time options - with all the related costs accurately accounted for and other non-monetary pros and cons described in detail. To perform this unique logistics task the third party bus consultants have proprietary algorithms, systems, processes, software and techniques that local transportation administrators don't have access to. Moreover, in other school systems that have first tried to have their transportation administrator do this type of analysis, their administrators have been accused of bias when sophisticated parent advocates found inaccurate figures, assumptions, and gaps in the analyses. An independent, third-party consultant eliminates any patina of bias from the process.

For all of these reasons, Greenwich hired a third-party bus consultant to do multiple analyses, even though its transportation administrator and CFO are sophisticated professionals as well. Ridgefield has also hired a third-party bus consultant as the first step in figuring out how to implement later start times for the 2018-2019 school year. Hiring a third-party bus consultant should be Westport's first step as well.

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A: Before anyone starts arguing about this point, we need to commission a bus study to find out what all the different options would be for implementing later high school and middle school start times and what each option would cost. Perhaps there is a way to make this change that would not affect our school budget.

Also, as mentioned in response to the prior question, please remember that our current school start times harm our students' health immensely. This issue is not equivalent to determining whether to add STEM classes or improve our schools in other ways as part of the town's strategic long term planning. Like mold or lead in our classrooms - which our town has historically remediated immediately - our school schedule is a serious public health issue. This is why our town's pediatricians and the country's leading medical organizations have issued policy statements that middle and high school should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. These organizations do not opine on the content of curricula or how to make our infrastructure more efficient. They warn us about serious risks to our health like smoking, ebola, and lead poisoning. We should take their policy statements seriously and act on them. Despite any budget difficulties, this is a problem we need to fix now for the sake of our children.

Even if starting school later would involve additional cost, this would be money well spent by our town. Economists investigating this issue have concluded that even using the most conservative numbers, delaying school start times has a substantial benefit-to-cost ratio of 9:1:5

Delaying start times by one hour for students in secondary school would increase overall student achievement by roughly .1 standard deviation, on average… A one standard deviation rise in test scores is estimated to increase future earnings by 8%. Assuming a 1% growth rate for real wages and productivity and a 4% discount rate, this translates to an approximately $10,000 increase in future earnings per student, on average, in present value terms…. Having districts alter their bussing system so that all students start school at the same time would cost approximately $150 per student per year – or $1,950 over a student’s school career.6
Aligning school start times with adolescent biology is so cost effective because it has the same effect on educational outcomes as putting all students in classes that are 1/3 smaller or putting students in classes with teachers whose performance is one standard deviation higher.6, 7, 8, 9, 10 Economists estimate that obtaining the same educational outcomes by actually reducing class size or hiring different teachers would cost seven times as much as starting school later.10

The economists’ analyses above don’t even take into account the savings of parent taxpayers from fewer automobile accidents and sports injuries. Drowsy driving has an estimated annual societal cost of $109 billion.9 And one study found that for one North Carolina town, starting school later would save $1 million in medical costs for minor sports-related injuries alone.9

In addition, given that the most preeminent medial organizations in our country have all said that middle and high school should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and other Fairfield County towns have moved start times later, by not following suit Westport is exposing itself to potentially large legal costs. If a teen sustains injuries that arguably could have been prevented with later start times, the individual harmed could sue the town for negligence. The Education Commission of the States has warned school districts about this potentially massive liability:
There appears to be no argument for keeping early start times that is supported by scientific or medical studies, and this may make it difficult to defend current practice. The mere existence of more than 3 million adolescents and young adults younger than 24 with delayed sleep phase disorders indicates the scale of potential problems arising from negligence suits (given that states already spend millions of dollars on settlements and judgments from injuries to students).Education start times are the responsibility of education bodies and institutions, and thus it could be argued they have full responsibility for any foreseeable negative impact of early start times.6a
Such lawsuits might not succeed if they go to trial because the plaintiff would have to prove that the earlier start times caused his or her injuries, but the legal costs of defending against these lawsuits would be significant. By moving start times later we could avoid exposing our town to this potential liability.

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Q: You are nuts - we shouldn't be having this conversation now. Our local tax burden is a bigger concern than ever due to the new federal tax bill, and changing the school start times might be an extra expense in a school budget that is already large.

A: If you understand the science behind the adolescent sleep cycle and have read the policy statements of the AMA, AAP, and CDC on school start times, it is crazier that we haven't fixed this problem in our schools already.  Students learn the information they were exposed to during the day when they are sleeping.  For every day that we keep our current high school start times spending, all the money that we spend on our schools is not as effective as it otherwise could be.

Moreover, and as explained in more detail above, our current middle and high school start times are a serious public health threat. When our town recently found out that there was mold at Coleytown Middle School, our public officials had the mold remediated as soon as possible. This issue is no different.

The Westport Board of Finance has encouraged strategic investments in our education system that will yield long-term benefits and productivity. As noted in detail above and on the Benefits page of this website changing middle and high school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later is one of the best investments that our town can make in the productivity of our school system and the health of our adolescents.

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MYTHBUSTERS - My teen gets enough sleep, My teen can catch up on sleep on the weekend

Presented by Rafael Pelayo, MD, Clinical Professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine.
A: Are you sure? As the American Academy of Pediatrics has pointed out, there is a “significant lack of awareness among adults regarding the extent of adolescent sleep loss.” 5 A nationwide poll showed that only 9% of high school students are getting the sleep that they need each night, while 71% of the parents surveyed believed that their adolescent did in fact get enough sleep.5, 12, 13, 14, 15As Dr. Pelayo explains in more detail in the video below a teen that, when left to his or her own devices, sleeps two or more hours on the weekends past the time that he or she wakes up on school days, this teen is sleep deprived.

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Q: Can’t we just have our teens go to bed earlier instead?

A: No, this is biologically unfeasible for most adolescents, as explained in detail on the Science page of this website. As scientists have explained, “students cannot force themselves to fall asleep at a time early enough to get an adequate night’s rest… sleep researchers have found that adolescents stay awake later largely for biological reasons.”8 And because an adolescent’s body continues to secrete melatonin until at least 8:00 a.m., “simply going to bed earlier does not necessarily make someone less tired in the early morning hours.”16

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MYTHBUSTERS - Our students will just stay up later if school starts later

presented by Rafael Pelayo, MD, Clinical Professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine
A: No, this isn’t true, as scientist Wendy Troxel has explained:
The findings are unequivocal, and as a sleep scientist, I rarely get to speak with that kind of certainty. Teens from districts with later start times get more sleep. To the naysayers who may think that if schools start later, teens will just stay up later, the truth is, their bedtimes stay the same, but their wake-up times get extended, resulting in more sleep.92
Thousands of adolescents have shifted to later school start times and the research all shows that bedtimes either stay about the same or in some cases actually shift slightly earlier.5, 19, 20, 23, 24, 25, 25a, 25b Out of the 11 studies published on this issue as of May 2016, weekday bedtimes stayed the same in 11 studies and in 2 studies students reported slightly earlier bedtimes.17 At the same time, students are using the extra time in the morning to sleep, which means that delayed school start times do accomplish the goal of increasing sleep duration for adolescents.17, 22, 23, 24, 25 In fact, researchers have determined that, as opposed to parenting methods, academic workload, and extracurricular activities, school start time has the single largest effect on how long adolescents sleep each night.18

In Wilton, for example, the high school start times moved by 40 minutes from 7:35 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. In a follow-up study, students reported getting an average of 35 extra minutes of sleep per night.21 Likewise, in a four year study of over 12,000 secondary school students in Minnesota, start times were pushed later by an hour. The students continued to go to bed at around the same time – even four years later – and got an extra hour of sleep each night. As the head researcher of this study explained, “this is contrary to the fears and expectations that a later start would result in students staying awake an hour later on school nights. Instead, students in Minneapolis high schools get 5 more hours of sleep per week than do their peers in the schools that start earlier in the day.”22

As an added bonus, students who begin school later also spend less time watching television and more time on homework each week.10, 26

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A: It might seem like high school has started at 7:30 a.m. or earlier forever, but that isn’t the case. A hundred years ago, most schools started around 9:00 a.m.27 During the recession in the 1970s, many schools shifted high school and middle school start times earlier so they could have tiered bus schedules.27, 28 Back then, the importance of sleep and the adolescent sleep cycle shift weren’t understood. Because there seemed to be no downside to earlier start times, saving money by using the fewest possible busses in three cycles was appealing.27

Now that we know better and leading health organizations have recommended that school start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., it makes no sense to leave start times as they are. When the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that we have babies sleep on their backs without crib bumpers, should we ignore them because our parents did otherwise and we turned out fine? When the American Medical Association recommends that we not expose our children to cigarette smoke, should we ignore them because we were exposed as kids and we turned out fine? When the CDC tells us we shouldn't have more than a specific amount of lead in our schools, should we leave a school covered in chipping lead paint the way it is because some of our schools were the same way when we were students? As one school superintendent explained, "the science and the evidence is so clear, that if I did nothing at all and just continued on with the same start times, I was hurting kids."66 Now that we know better, we need to do better in Westport too.

Put differently, imagine that you spent a long time in Iceland during your youth, but since then researchers have discovered that there is something in the environment that, for teens, causes lower academic and sports performance, reduced creativity, poor mental health, an increased likelihood of car accidents, and a greater likelihood of sports injuries. So the CDC recommends that teens not travel there. Would you send your adolescent children there anyways because you grew up in that environment and turned out fine?

And not changing school start times because teens will have to wake up early in the “real world” is equally ridiculous. Biology causes adolescents’ sleep cycle to shift later, just like biology causes toddlers to need 1 or 2 naps each day. Making teenagers attend school so early to "prepare" for the real world is like asking toddlers to skip their naps to prepare for second grade. By the time teens are in their early twenties and in the “real world,” their sleep cycle will have shifted back.6 The "real world" is also a diverse place, with schedules varying greatly from person to person. We shouldn’t compromise adolescents’ health and potential by making them wake up so early now just because they might have to, or choose to, wake up early years later.

Moreover, the "real world" that our students will join prioritizes sleep and corporations even see it now as a "status symbol" and "human potential enhancer."72 Accenture, JP Morgan Chase, and Uber, among other companies, provide "antiburnout programing" which "educates their employees on the importance of sleep."72 Aetna, the health care company, is paying its workers up to $500 a year if they can prove they have slept for seven hours or more for 20 days in a row.72 And even the Army "has proclaimed sleep a pillar of peak soldier performance."72

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A: Yes. In 2003, the Westport Board of Education formed a special school start time committee that included principals of 4 schools, 3 teachers, the athletic director, a nursing supervisor, and a PPS coordinator. The committee commissioned Clive R. Belfield of Columbia University to examine the research on school start times and write a report.

In his report, professor Belfield wrote that “the link between lack of sleep and impaired general cognitive capacities is strong and compelling” and that “it is possible to infer” that Westport's current school start times impair educational performance. He ultimately concluded, however, that there needed to be more research on the effect of start times on academic performance. He also noted that scientists hadn’t yet determined what school start time would be most beneficial for adolescents.

After meeting 13 times and reviewing Professor Belfield’s report, the special committee wrote a final report in March 2004. In the report, the committee concluded that “the scientific literature does not provide enough evidence to support altering school start time for high school students at the present time” because: (1) the committee wanted more evidence that students would get more sleep with later start times, (2) the committee was waiting for more guidance from experts on what start time would be best.

The medical community has answered both of these questions in the intervening years. First, students have gotten more sleep with later school start times in every one of the many studies that have been done on this issue.29 Second, as of 2016 the evidence regarding the public harm caused by current school start times was so compelling that the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, and the Center for Disease Control, and many other organizations have all recommended that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Any starting time before this hour, such as Staples High School's start time of 7:30 a.m., is NOT optimal. Rather, it is a serious public health hazard for our teens. 5, 16, 30, 31

In fact, some scientists suggest that, while changing start times to 8:30 a.m. is a move in the right direction, start times of 10:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m. would be ideal for high school students and freshmen in college. 13, 14, 17 Changing our middle and high school start times to 8:30 a.m. is the very least that we should do for Westport's adolescents.

Since 2004, scientists have also learned more about the importance of sleep and how later school start times improve academic performance, sports performance, mental health, and numerous other important facets of teenage life.

School start times have been brought up on other occasions during the past 13 years, but the Board of Education has not looked at the issue in depth again.

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A: Changing school start times might involve altering extracurricular activity schedules as well, but this inconvenience is nothing in comparison with what we have to gain. As explained in further detail on the benefits page, our teens will be much better athletes and get significantly fewer sports injuries with later school start times.32 Our artists will be more creative.32 And our musicians will have more effective practice sessions as their bodies are better able to learn the fine muscle movements needed to play their instruments.32, 33

What’s more, student participation in all of these activities either stayed the same or increased in ALL follow up studies of middle and high schools that moved their start times later.21, 24, 34, 35 As one group of researchers that reviewed all of these studies reported, “we identified no districts in which athletic programs were canceled or significantly adversely affected by school start time change.35 To the contrary, a number of districts found that more students participated in athletics and that sports programs grew after high school bell times were delayed, and reported that their teams performed better following the change.”35

Nor should we worry that moving start times later would make it difficult to schedule games with other schools. Students at Wilton High School have benefited from later start times for over a decade, and according to Wilton’s athletic director there have been “no problems with the athletic schedule because neighboring schools simply pushed back the starting times for some of our away games at their sites by 15-30 minutes.” The Wilton superintendent also reported that they had one of their best athletic years ever after moving start times and that participation in all sports increased.21

The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (“CIAC”) has even issued a position statement in support of later start times: “research shows that switching to later school start times does create a more optimal learning environment and improves student achievement for high school athletes… [with later start times] ”interscholastic athletic activities can continue to be offered, with appropriate accommodations, within any reasonable school day structure…To do less would be to elevate high school athletics to an importance greater than that which is its true purpose.”36

Other schools in the CIAC are also working towards implementing later start times. Ridgefield has committed to institute later start times for the 2018 - 2019 school year, and Greenwich High School will start classes at 8:30 a.m. starting in September 2017. Reportedly, Greenwich athletic director Gus Lindine was originally apprehensive about the change, but he is now excited that the district’s new sports schedule will take advantage of the many scientifically demonstrated benefits of more sleep for student-athletes, including enhanced performance and significantly reduced injuries. If Westport does not follow suit and move school start times later as well, our adolescents will be at a significant disadvantage to their better-rested peers in Wilton, Greenwich, and Ridgefield, not only in the classroom but also on the playing field, in the orchestra, and in the artists’ studio.

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A: There will be many different scheduling options for implementing healthier school start times, and the first step to figuring out what these options are is to commission a third-party bus study. This study will come up with a long list of all the different start time options, the estimated costs of implementing each new schedule, if any, and any other pros and cons of each option.

Ideally, none of our children should be waiting for a bus in the dark, regardless of their age. Age does not make pedestrians more visible to drivers. Nor does age make adolescents invisible to predators lurking in shadows of the dawn. Our school start times should keep ALL children safe, not just the youngest ones.

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MYTHBUSTERS - My teen gets enough sleep, My teen can catch up on sleep on the weekend

presented by Rafael Pelayo, MD, Clinical Professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine
A: Sleeping in on the weekend wreaks further havoc on teens’ sleep cycles.20, 37, 38, 39, 40 After waking up so much later in the morning, adolescents have an even harder time falling asleep on Sunday nights.20, 37, 38, 39, 40 Moreover, the average teen would have to sleep most of the weekend to make up for the sleep debt accumulated during the week with our current school start times.37, 39, 40

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A: Our current school start times are a serious public health hazard for our adolescents, as the AAP, AMA, and CDC have explained in their position statements. After school employment should not take priority over fixing something that is so detrimental to our teens' health and futures. We also need to remember that changing school start times has such a large impact on academics alone that our students can expect their future earnings to increase by 8%6 And most high school students work lower wage jobs. If students did have to work less hours now due to later start times, the end result would be a cost-effective investment in their future.

Ultimately, however, we don't need to worry that teens won't be able to work as much if their school start times move later. In all of the school districts that have moved school start times later, no follow up study has found that altering the hours of after school jobs caused any sort of problem for the communities at issue. For example, in one study of seven high schools that shifted their start times from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., researchers found that there was no negative impact on after-school employment of high school students because employers had no trouble adjusting hours and many employers didn’t need additional staff until at least 4:00 p.m. anyways.22

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A: While most of the articles and news sources referenced on this website are publicly available through other websites, if we link to those websites directly and the website at issue has posted that particular article in violation of copyright law, we could be sued.

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Q: Where does the theme song to Sleep for Success' videos come from?

A: The song is called "City of Love" and it was written and performed by Jake Bernard, an amazing young musician and graduate of Staples High School. You can read more about Jake on Dan Woog's Westport blog, 06880, and hear more of his music on YouTube, Facebook, and Spotify.

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MYTHBUSTERS - Our students and schools are far above average so later start times cannot help us

presented by Rafael Pelayo, MD, Clinical Professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine
A: Without a doubt, our schools are amazing. But there is ample room for improvement.

The US News & World Report rankings are arguably problematic, but if we are going to use them as a benchmark, Westport also placed 391th in the national high school rankings. We called the high schools ranked in the top ten. The morning start times for first period at these schools, put in order of the best high school to the tenth best high school, are 8:25, 8:25, 8:40, 9:15, 8:15, 8:40, 8:25, 8:25, 9:15, and 8:15, respectively. Staples High School starts at 7:30 a.m.

The top three private schools in the country, Phillips Academy, Phillips Exeter Academy, and the Lawrenceville School, start first period at 8:00 a.m.96 This is especially significant given that over 70% of these schools’ students live at the school and have incredibly short morning “commutes.”

Even if Westport was ranked #1, however, we are still failing our students when it comes to academics. The mission of Westport Public Schools is “to prepare all students to reach their full potential as life-long learners.” 24b With the benefit of science that is now “unequivocal,” we know that it is impossible for our district to fulfill this goal until we change our middle and high school starting times. 24b Our most important learning takes place during sleep, and particularly during the REM phase of sleep which occurs most often in the late morning for adolescents; the brain consolidates and practices what the student learned during the day, forms long-term memories, and connects and prunes synapses in ways that improve complex and abstract thought, mathematical capacity, logical reasoning, complex thought, and creativity.18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 24a

As sleep scientist Wendy Troxel explained about late morning REM sleep in her recent TED talk, “I know that by waking up [my son up for school] 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. 24c

Even the valedictorian of Staples High School is a human. And as a matter of neuroscience, our school district has prevented this student from even coming close to reaching his or her full potential due to our current high school schedule.

Now some of you might still think, “Who cares? Being valedictorian is good enough.” It’s not when that student could have learned more and done even better. Staples High School, Fairfield County, and even the state of Connecticut is still, metaphorically speaking, a very small pond in our global community. Other students around the country and around the world are benefitting from later start times, and the number of students in this group is growing every year. For example, schools in the U.K and Finland typically start at 9:00 a.m. at the earliest.32b, 32c, 32d These are the peers that our students are competing with for college admissions and later, for jobs, among many other things.

In addition, as a community, we have acknowledged that we should improve our schools through programs like Westport 2025 and Westport’s guiding principles. As explained above, our students can’t meet goals in these programs like thinking critically, creatively and “synthesiz[ing] content and apply[ing] it to new situations” without the right amount of sleep at the right time of day - which for teens includes the last hours of their natural sleep cycle, which we rob them from every school day. 93

Other goals in Westport 2025 and our guiding principles include having our teens be “joyful about learning new things” and display “a sense of wonder that allows for deeper exploration of concepts.” 93 Should we expect this from our teens when our school schedule, with our adolescents’ neurobiology, is equivalent to waking an adult up at 3:45 to start work at 4:30 a.m.?95

In short, yes, Westport’s schools are amazing and a great source of pride for our town. But our children also deserve better than a school district that prioritizes aspirational goals without first providing students with the basic, biological necessities they need to fully achieve these goals – which, for us, is later middle and high school start times.

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A: As explained in the sports section of the Benefits page * and by sports medicine expert Dr. Karen Sutton in the video below, this information has been compelling to world-class student athletes at Stamford, professional athletes, and Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history. In addition, student athletes that don’t get enough sleep are 68% more likely to sustain an injury that requires medical treatment than their well-rested peers, who also derive more enjoyment out of participating in sports. 77 Whether you are just learning a sport or breaking world records, obtaining enough sleep significantly improves our athletic success and overall experience playing. And as a matter of biology, our middle and high school athletes can’t obtain enough sleep to meet this baseline without changing school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later. 78

MYTHBUSTERS - Our sports teams are already the best and if start times are later they will get worse because we won't have enough time to practice

presented by Rafael Pelayo, MD, Clinical Professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine

How Later Middle and High School Start Times Benefit our Student Athletes

presented by Dr. Karen Sutton

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A: There is no scientific consensus regarding what happens to the adolescent sleep cycle when clocks “fall back” to standard time. In fact, the premise of the question – that in general teens quickly fill the “extra” hour with wakeful pursuits rather than getting more sleep – might not be true.

To our knowledge there have been no peer-reviewed studies with objective measures on this issue. Researchers are still studying how daylight savings time (“DST”) affects the population at large, and these studies tend to exclude or control for adolescents because their sleep cycles are so different from those of adults.1

The only study on DST and high school students concerned the effects of the “spring forward” to DST rather than the switch back to standard time. These students went to White Plains High School and started class at 7:40 a.m. The researchers found that after the clock moved forward to DST, the students never fully adjusted to the time change and lost a mean of 32 minutes of sleep each weeknight.2 This caused “highly significant” declines in the students’ cognitive function, psychomotor vigilance, and reaction times.3

Regardless of what the scientific community eventually concludes regarding the effects of DST on teens, however, there is no reason to think that adolescents will stay up for an extra hour if we moved our school start times one hour later. In contrast to the paucity of research regarding teens and DST, so many studies in different settings by different experts have found that adolescents get more sleep with later school start times that there is “virtually unanimous agreement” among researchers on this point.4 In fact, as detailed throughout this website, “the findings are unequivocal”5 and “few, if any educational interventions are so strongly supported by research evidence from so many different disciplines and experts in the field.”6 That’s why the position statements of our nation’s leading medical and educational organizations and all of our local pediatricians don’t just note that adolescents need more sleep; they state that middle and high schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

So, how might moving start times later by an hour result in better-rested teens even if, hypothetically, the same doesn’t occur when the clock “falls back” to standard time? The information below is reasonable conjecture rather than scientific fact, but there are at least three reasons why the two scenarios might yield different results.

First, during the “fall back” from DST, every scheduled aspect of a teen’s life automatically shifts one hour later. These externally dictated schedules concretely affect the timing for bedtime, while no such constraints exist in the morning to wake up with the exception of school start time. And while some extracurricular activities might meet later in the day if school start times were later, post-school activities and responsibilities of teens might be accomplished in a more efficient manner, leaving more time for sleep.

For example, students with later school start times complete homework more efficiently7 because they are more alert, manage their time more effectively, and have improved attention, memory, abstract thinking, and verbal creativity.8 Sports coaches could get better results from their athletes with shorter practices because their athletes build and repair muscle more quickly, improve skills and learn team plays more easily, have faster reaction times, and are significantly less likely to get injured 9, 10, 11 – collegiate and professional athletes have found this to be the case and as a result many teams now hire sleep consultants and track athletes’ sleep. 12, 13, 14, 15 Likewise, our musicians could learn the fine muscle movements needed to play their sonatas more quickly and our theatre stars could master their lines and blocking in less time.16 Adolescents with later school start times even spend less time watching television.17,18 In sum, and as opposed to adjusting a clock while keeping the exact same daily schedule, moving school start times an hour forward is just that – a change to middle and high school hours. The other things that students seek to accomplish after school – including homework – might not take as long.

Second, residents of districts that have moved school start times later learned about the importance of sleep during that process and have a much better understanding of sleep science than the general population. Many people still view adequate sleep as something for the boring, weak, or the lazy. When there’s only 24 hours in the day and you have ambitions – academic, athletic, career, musical, social, or all of the above – sleep is usually the first thing to go. But when parents and students understand that sleep deprivation literally and figuratively prevents adolescents from fully achieving any dreams they might have, sleep becomes more of a priority.

In fact, to help ensure that sleep is prioritized, some districts also add sleep health education programs to their curriculum when they change to the recommended start times of 8:30 a.m. or later. For example, around the time when Menlo-Atherton High School changed its first bell from 7:45 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., with classes starting twice a week at 9:30 a.m., it also implemented an award-winning sleep education program in partnership with Stanford University.19 The average teen adjusting back to standard time in the fall does not have the same knowledge base.

Third, as mentioned previously, the only study using objective measures regarding adolescents and DST concluded that teens did not fully adjust to the “spring forward” to DST.20 And research on adults shows that, based on sunrise and sunset times the “fall back” to standard time may take place a month too late.21 In other words, it is possible that teens’ never fully adjust their bedtimes to DST and their circadian systems are primed to adjust back to standard-time bedtimes in November. This is a completely different scenario than moving school start times later. As any parent of an adolescent has observed, once their teen is asleep, if given the option he or she will usually occupy free time in the morning with more sleep.

In sum, what teens do or don’t do when clocks are adjusted as part of DST shouldn’t dissuade us from changing our middle and high school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later. The scenarios are different in many important ways, and there is a wealth of evidence – evidence that has been vetted and endorsed by our country’s leading medical organizations – proving that adolescents get more sleep with later school start times.

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A: Westport should add a mandatory sleep health education to its curriculum, but this change would not be enough to ameliorate the health hazards caused by our current school schedules. As detailed throughout this website, the adolescent sleep cycle shift is a universal, neuro-biological stage of human development.1 Even if all our students somehow obtained PhDs in sleep science prior to graduating high school, they still generally would not be able to fall asleep until 11:00 p.m. at the earliest.2 And there’s simply not enough time between then and our current school start times for adolescents to get the sleep they need to be safe, healthy, and excel to their full potential. 3, 4

If you think about it, adding sleep education alone under our current circumstances would be cruel. Our schools would be teaching students about the serious harm caused by sleep deprivation, while keeping a schedule where it isn’t possible for them to get enough sleep. The scenario would be analogous to teaching students about the dangers of mold exposure in a school where there’s mold.

Research on the efficacy of sleep health education programs demonstrates that schools must also have later start times for the programs to meaningfully improve student health: “the overall trend across studies was for an improvement in sleep knowledge but a null effect on sleep behaviors.” 5,6 The exceptions – sleep education programs that helped increase students’ nightly sleep – took place in schools with later start times or with greater student flexibility in scheduling morning classes, including:

  • A six-week sleep education curriculum that was part of the health course in a New Zealand High School,7 where classes typically start at 9:00 a.m. , 8
  • The award-winning Sleep Ambassadors program at Menlo-Atherton High School, where students from Yale University help educate high school students on the importance of sleep, and faculty from Yale give presentations to parents and teachers regarding the same, 9
  • A program which included an information session, wearable sleep monitors, and personalized text messages each day based on each student’s sleep activity10 in a U.S. High School where first period started at 8:32 a.m.11 The only student group that did not experience increased sleep duration was the racial-ethnic minority students,12 some of whom may have been more likely to take advantage of the vocational training offered prior to first period,
  • A program at a U.S. liberal arts college that included information sessions, a sleep diary, and personalized feedback, where students that had slept less than 7 hours per night before the sleep education obtained significantly more sleep each night after the program, 13
  • And a program at the University of Arizona where athletes were educated about the importance of sleep, received sleep tracker devices and diaries, and had 24-hour access to experts to answer any sleep health questions they might have. Even though this study focused on sleep duration and quality, which significantly improved for 100% of the student athletes, 89% of students reported improved athletic performance at the end of the study as well. 14
  • If we want to improve the health and safety of our students and help students reach their full potential through a sleep education program, we should also implement school start times of 8:30 a.m. or later. Otherwise, we are giving students the knowledge they can use to improve their lives in the future without giving them a chance to fully implement this knowledge now – which might be too late for the teen who could have performed well enough to get into their preferred college with more sleep, the teen whose frontal lobe will never be able to assess risk accurately due to adolescent sleep deprivation or, in the worst case scenario, the teen that became addicted to substances, died in a car accident, or the teen that committed suicide.

A: There was a good op-ed published in the Greenwich times regarding this issue, which you can see here. We’ve made some additional points and provided details below.

First - and in spite of the initial logistical difficulties which are addressed in more detail below – there’s no real evidence that the new schedule in Greenwich is unsuccessful. As the author of the op-ed explained, “[a]ll leading medical authorities and experts in the United States have spoken in one voice recommending an 8:30 start a.m. time or later” based on extensive evidence from multiple fields. Some parents have claimed that the 8:30 a.m. start time is worse than the old 7:30 a.m. start time, but this is anecdotal evidence. And there is just as much, if not more, anecdotal evidence from other parents indicating the opposite. For example, one mom of two high-achieving GHS students recently reported that (a) her kids get their homework done earlier because they are more alert and efficient (b) they go to bed at the same time or earlier, and (c) they have not had a single sick day. Another parent was thrilled that her son, an all-state musician, is sleeping more, learning new pieces faster, and performing better than ever.
What’s more, Greenwich High School’s sports teams and clubs have been unusually successful since the 8:30 a.m. start time was implemented. For example:

  • The football team was undefeated in regular season – which hasn’t happened since 2006 – and made it to the state finals,
  • The women’s volleyball team won both the state and FCIAC titles for the first time in program history,
  • The women’s swimming and diving team won the FCIAC and state championships, with both individual swimmers and relays breaking long-standing state and team records,
  • The men’s soccer team won the FCIAC championship,
  • The women’s cross-country team won its first FCIAC title since 1981 and came in second at the state championships,
  • The men’s crew team had their best results in the history of the program at the Head of the Charles,
  • The Model UN Club won eight awards at the Princeton University Model United Nations Conference, and
  • The GHS debate team came in first place at the Connecticut Debate Tournament

These outcomes make sense because students with later school start times get more sleep, and students that get more and better sleep perform better in academics and athletics.

Second, Greenwich experienced some unique logistical difficulties that probably would not occur at all or to the same extent in Westport.
  • General: It is possible that the implementation team in Greenwich could have prevented some problems from occurring through better planning in the 14 months prior to the start of the 2017 – 2018 school year. The Greenwich School District had new administrators in key positions, including the Superintendent, Chief Operating Officer, and head of transportation. The start time project manager also left the school district and was never replaced. It is unlikely that our seasoned administrators and implementation committee would make the same mistakes, especially with the benefit of knowing the hiccups that occurred in other towns like Greenwich.
  • Transportation: Some of the initial bussing problems in Greenwich could have been ameliorated by better planning. Reportedly, administrators made modifications to the school bus consultants’ plan on their own. Then there was no dry run of the new bus routes. Had this occurred, bus drivers probably wouldn’t have gotten lost or been late and administrators would have realized in advance that a main road needed to be repaved to accommodate some of the new, larger busses. As explained in the op-ed, transportation-related problems have been ironed out: “Bus ridership is up sharply, presumably because students no longer have to choose between catching a very early bus or driving to school so they can get more sleep. With the addition of three extra busses and some route fine-tuning, 100 percent of busses are now arriving before the bell time in the morning.”
  • Traffic Congestion: School start times aside, Greenwich High School has a difficult location for purposes of traffic, regardless of what time school starts and ends. The school is near I-95 and right off what is effectively Post Road in Greenwich. The town is also in a tough spot for purposes of traveling to games and competitions after school. Greenwich is on the western border of the FCIAC Conference, which means that travel to away games is always in the direction of rush hour traffic. Westport is more centrally located, and we can ask our independent school bus consultants to come up with start-time scenarios that are traffic neutral or possibly even improve traffic flow.
  • Field Lighting: The football team ended up having some post-regular-season practices with little daylight. With respect to field lighting, Greenwich High School is in a uniquely difficult situation due to more burdensome zoning regulations and a litigious neighbor. All officials were aware of these issues over a year before the 2017-2018 school year, but the school board didn’t approach the P&Z to install temporary field lights until October 2017 (this application hasn’t been decided and football season is over). And the district only recently decided to pursue litigation to relax the restrictions on the high school field lighting. The district could have started these efforts a year earlier or explored other solutions such as using nearby fields and lighting at Central Middle School, installing a temporary bubble over the GHS fields, or reducing the football’s team practice time from 3 hours to 2.5 hours. Sports are an important component of student life, and later school start times would improve our athlete’s performance dramatically. Our excellent school administrators work together and with local youth athletic organizations to iron out implementation logistics related to athletics.
  • Missed Classes for Athletes: As mentioned previously, Greenwich is on the western border of the FCIAC. The town’s sports teams already have to travel greater distances than Westport student athletes because Westport is more centrally located. And Greenwich makes every one of these trips in the direction of rush hour traffic. Our student athletes would not have to leave as early to get to away games. For the students that do have to leave early, however, why not use the new start times as impetus for having any class recorded that must be missed for athletes to attend away games. These classes would be known well in advance, so it wouldn’t be burdensome to plan, and the technology involved to do so is relatively inexpensive. If we could do this, our athletes might end up “missing” less class than they did before the start times changed.
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