School district finds success with later start time

SHOREWOOD - Mornings with kids are hectic enough. And when you factor in how early some schools start, it makes it even harder to get students up and going. 

Research shows starting school later, though, could stop some teens from drinking, smoking and other bad behaviors.

And according to the researcher who's worked on this for 20 years, 92 percent of parents said later start times made their teens easier to live with.

"We're still really tired at 7:30," explained Shorewood High School senior Shilei Bell-Lipsey.

"All of my energy was like don't fall asleep in class," said Makayla McMurry, also a senior in Shorewood.

For parents, an early bell means an even earlier struggle with sleepy teenagers.

"I think it was the hardest on days where she had something first period that she knew was going to be difficult," said Kristin Fraser, a parent in Shorewood. "She would ask me to wake her up even earlier."

But after a change at Shorewood high school, it's almost a dream complete with better rested students and happier parents.

Now school starts at 8:05.

"I just feel more engaged and more in tune," said McMurry.

Bell-Lipsey takes public transportation to school. With the old schedule, she found herself rushing in the morning.

"I was constantly late for first hour," she said. Now she's early. "I can get started and prepare for my day."

Principal Tim Kenney said he loves the change.

"[We saw] a pretty significant drop in unexcused tardies to first hour to the tune of 20-25% of a dropoff," he said.

Kids showing up on one time is just one reason. Kenney said the school has seen fewer behavioral issues, which he says could be linked to the later start time. Studies back up Shorewood's experience. The research shows high school students have the least flexible sleep schedule of any of us. And that they function best when they sleep between the hours of 10:45 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Kyla Wahlstrom from the University of Minnesota has spend twenty years studying school start times.

"When teens are sleep deprived, their ability to think through decisions, whether or not they use cigarettes, alcohol and so on," she explained.

But the change comes with challenges.

"You only have a certain amount of time that you can work with to fit things into an entire school year," Kenney said. He said he had to crunch the numbers of the school day to change the bell schedule without losing much teaching time.

Bigger districts can face even bigger issues, dealing with budgets and transportation. Milwaukee Public Schools started surveying parents this year to see if they would be willing to shift start times, but the district said they're now tabling that possibility. The I-Team talked to some parents who got the survey. They were very worried about having elementary aged kids getting on the bus as early as 7:15 so high school kids could go in later. Wahlstrom admits coordinating the change isn't always simple.

"Communities have rhythms. They have a rhythm for when schools starts and they have a rhythm for going to work and childcare and all those things- sports, activities," she said.

Kenney said if he could, he'd start even later because it seems to be working.

"I was more focused and in tune," explained McMurry.  

Fraser said her kids are more pleasant.
 

AREA HIGH SCHOOL START TIMES:

  • RACINE: Traditional high schools- 7:15 a.m.
  • KENOSHA: Varies- the earliest is 7:19 a.m. Two combined middle/high school campuses begin at 8:45 a.m.
  • ELMBROOK: 7:55 a.m.
  • OAK CREEK-FRANKLIN: 7:30 a.m.
  • WHITNALL: 7:45 a.m.
  • CEDARBURG: 7:28 a.m. some days, 8:13 on other days, depending on the student.
  • WAUKESHA: 7:35 a.m.
  • WAUWATOSA: 8 a.m.
  • SHEBOYGAN: 7:55 a.m.

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