Op-Ed

Bellingham schools changed to give teens time to sleep in. Here’s how it’s going.

Bellingham Public Schools changed start and end times for elementary and high school students in 2017. The high school start time moved from 7:45 to 8:30 a.m., (45 minutes later) and the elementary start time changed from 8:30 to 8 a.m. (30 minutes earlier). The middle school schedule stayed the same.
Bellingham Public Schools changed start and end times for elementary and high school students in 2017. The high school start time moved from 7:45 to 8:30 a.m., (45 minutes later) and the elementary start time changed from 8:30 to 8 a.m. (30 minutes earlier). The middle school schedule stayed the same. The Bellingham Herald file

This fall in Bellingham Public Schools, we implemented new start and end times for our high school students that benefit their overall health and strengthen their academic experience. I am so appreciative of and grateful to our families, students and staff as we all adapt. As you can imagine, making this change is complex. It impacts most families and staff, from a little to a lot – everything from staff and families’ work and sleep schedules to when lunch is served at school and bus routing.

I thought it would be helpful to share some of the history and process we went through as a community, as well as an update on what we’re hearing from students, families and staff.

When I came in Bellingham Public Schools in 2010, one area of interest was school start and end times. I focused first on the bell schedule for elementary students with the goal to increase instructional time for our youngest learners. After the district previously did away with two different school day end times for grades K-2 and 3-5, we expanded the elementary school day from 6 to 6.5 hours, leaving the re-working of the high school schedule to a later time.

Since then, many scientific reports support changing school start times for teenagers to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. School districts nationally have been working to push back high school start times to better match the “biological clock” of teens. These include studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the most recent one written by the Rand Corporation, titled “Shifting School Start Times Could Contribute $83 Billion to U.S. Economy Within a Decade.” It became obvious that teens need more sleep but school systems, including ours, struggled with how to accomplish it. With numerous competing needs and interests, we went to work. We were (and are!) highly motivated by the needs of our students.

Through a multi-year process of research, proposals, surveys and communication with students, families and staff, we developed a proposal. After months of discussion and refinement, in March 2016, we landed on our current schedule and gave 18 months to plan and adjust. The high school start time moved from 7:45 to 8:30 a.m., (45 minutes later) and the elementary start time changed from 8:30 to 8 a.m. (30 minutes earlier). The middle school schedule stayed the same. I should add that 8:30 a.m. was the most requested start time from families. Unfortunately, given the size of our district (more than 100 square miles with 22 different schools) and transportation complexities, it’s not doable to start all of our schools at the same time. Medical research backed our assumption that if one group of students needs to start earlier that it should be our youngest students.

You may be wondering, “how’s it going so far?” We have heard from high school teachers that students are more alert and ready to learn. Feedback from our high school students and families is mostly positive, including insights from parents who recently commented on my blog:

“I appreciate that my daughter can get time to do homework, take AP classes and participate fully in her varsity sport. When she is rested, well prepared for the next day, has “down time” and time to play a sport she is at her best as a human being. The additional sleep and time for homework has been a game changer for her sophomore year.”

“Our family likes the additional sleep time in the morning for our 10th grader. We are glad that we do not have to wake him up so early! The mornings seem less stressful.”

In these initial weeks, there have been some bumps, including mixed feedback from the elementary community. Some families love the earlier start time while others find it challenging to adjust their children’s sleep and wake times.

We’re continuing to refine homework expectations to balance the later high school release time and the new high school eight-period schedule. Concurrent with the bell schedule, we wanted to find a way to offer students more course opportunities. The new “4 x 8” schedule (four classes a day, eight classes total) was also implemented this fall at all four of our high schools. Eight (instead of six) classes allows students more opportunities to “discover and develop a passion,” part of the vision of The Bellingham Promise, our strategic plan.

As always, I am interested in listening and learning as we make improvements and face challenges. We should all be very proud of our schools and community and our collective commitment to all children.

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