For more than seven years, Eileen Van Rheenan has worked to educate students, parents and staff members at Menlo-Atherton High School about the benefits of teen sleep.
Her work finally paid off this past December, when the Sequoia Union High School District planned to move start times for the entire district ahead by one hour.
“I am thrilled,” the mother of five said. “We had focused on Menlo-Atherton’s 1,800 kids, but now 8,000 or 9,000 students will benefit.”
According to district documents, its four high schools must adopt a later start time by the 2011-12 school year. An estimated 8,700 students were enrolled in the district in the 2008-09 school year.
Menlo-Atherton will start school at 8:45 a.m. three days a week, compared to its 7:50 a.m. start time last school year. The high school will start at 9:30 a.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays to accommodate the school’s block schedule.
According to sleep specialist Dr. Rafael Pelayo with the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, getting enough sleep is as beneficial as proper nutrition and exercise.
“It’s good for your health,” he said. “Teens need more sleep; we already knew this. But we try and treat them like mini-adults. We cannot treat them the same way as an adult, though; they need more sleep and we adults need to acknowledge that.”
Pelayo said it’s also a common misconception amongst adults that in high school, a student falling asleep in class means the student is bored.
“Boredom masks sleepiness,” he said. “Elementary school kids are bored just as easily and they’re not falling asleep.”
Though all sleep needs are different, Pelayo said on average, teens should get nine hours of sleep each night.
It’s more important, however, for the student to feel rested, Pelayo said.
Opponents have argued the later start times would affect the rhythm of the community — bus transportation, the amount of time teachers spend with their own families and after-school activities.
Steve Filios, assistant commissioner for the Central Coast Section of the California Interscholastic Federation, however, said he’s not been made aware of any potential conflicts in schedule with later start times.
“There’s been no discussion of conflicts, to my knowledge,” he said.
The National Sleep Foundation says there are often easy solutions to these potential problems. For example, the foundation says many teachers report increased personal time rather than less.
“Teachers can also take advantage of the extra time to sleep,” according to the foundation. “Some elect to arrive at school at the same time and complete planning before school, meaning their schedules are unchanged.”
Research at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education shows that the 1990s trend toward changed start times has met with fierce opposition, despite successes with students.
The biggest challenge Woodside High School administration faced when the school swapped its schedule for a later start time was afternoon traffic.
“It’s now 1,800 students leaving at 3:10 p.m. rather than 700 leaving at a time,” Woodside Principal David Reilly said. “We’ve had to make some adjustments to the traffic flow, but after weeks, parents started to adapt.”
Woodside approached the district for the change in start time, Reilly said, because of the benefits extra sleep has on teens.
Reilly said the change has been positive.
“The students are pretty adaptive,” he said. “Last year we had students lingering when school got out; now they’re darting to the locker room or other activities.”
Woodside went from an 8 a.m. start time with releases at 2:10 or 3:10 p.m. for students needing to take an extra class, to a
9:30 a.m. start time with an extra period at 8 a.m.
Van Rheenan said, “It’s a disservice to our youth to not consider their health and well-being. I’m really grateful they are taking this seriously.”
School year starting early
Lazy days of summer are drawing to a close for students up and down the Peninsula, as school starts for many this week.
Though it’s a departure from the September start of decades past, districts all over the state have adopted earlier start dates for the school year in order to align semester schedules with winter breaks.
According to the Redwood City Elementary School District, the change reflects five furlough days and one staff development day agreed upon between the district and the Redwood City Teacher’s Association.
Teacher furlough days — forced unpaid days off — have been adopted by many districts to help ease budget deficits.
Redwood City elementary students will start school Aug. 23. By that date, however, their high-school siblings will have been in school for at least a week.
Sequoia Union High School District’s first day of school is Aug. 18. District spokeswoman Bettylu Smith said the district has historically started early.
The change at the high-school level is with daily start times, not the districtwide calendar.
California school years on average span 180 days, according to the California Department of Education.
The earliest start date on the Peninsula is Monday for all 8,500 students in the San Mateo Union High School District.
All South San Francisco students will return to class Tuesday.
In an open letter to parents, South San Francisco Superintendent Howard Cohen explained the educational and financial challenges facing the district and the need for certain changes.
The San Francisco Unified School District has also adopted an early start to the school year. The City’s 55,000 students are returning one week earlier than before, with the first day of school also falling on Monday. Officials said the change is the result of aligning the school calendar to avoid breaks and incorporate furlough days.
Running into trouble
Resolutions to potential problems with later classes:
Transportation: There aren’t any additional drivers; have parents pick up young children first before picking up high school students.
After-school activities: Reschedule practice times; have employers adjust schedules of working students for later releases.
Reduced time to access public libraries: Students work more efficiently when they are less sleep-deprived and make better use of the time they do have at the library.
Teachers spending time with families: Personal time is actually increased; teachers can plan lessons in the morning and have more free time in the afternoon.
Source: National Sleep Foundation
High school district start times
South San Francisco Unified: 8:10 a.m.
San Mateo Unified
- Aragon: 7:50 a.m.
- Burlingame: 8 a.m.
- Capuchino: 8 a.m.
- Hillsdale: 7:45 a.m.
- Mills: 8 a.m.
- Peninsula: 8 a.m.
- San Mateo: 8 a.m.
- Menlo-Atherton: 8:45 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; 9:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays
- Woodside: 9:30 a.m., but 40 percent of students start at 8 a.m. to take an extra class
- Sequoia High School: 8 a.m.
- Jefferson High School: 8 a.m.
Sources: Sequoia Union High School District, San Mateo Union High School District, Jefferson High School, South San Francisco Unified School District
Sequoia Union High School District
4 high schools
9 hours: average sleep needed
Menlo-Atherton High School
The school is the first in the district to adopt a start time later than its 7:50 a.m. start last year.
2,089 students affected
8:45 a.m., 9:30 a.m. start times
Source: Sequoia Union High School District, Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford Medical Center