Asleep at the desk: How school begins for many Michigan teens

Emily Driesenga needs more sleep.

“I try to get to bed earlier, but there are nights I have a lot of homework to do,” said Driesenga, 17, a junior at Ewen-Trout Creek High School, a rural Upper Peninsula district of 217 students about 100 miles west of Marquette. “I try to have a social life, too, texting or talking to my friends. Sometimes I'm up until midnight.”

That's just six hours of sleep until her 6 a.m. wakeup. It's also at least two hours less than what experts say teenage brains need to do well in school. Many days, she battles the first couple classes to keep her eyes open.

“I find myself dozing off sometimes,” Driesenga confessed.

So when she heard that Ewen-Trout Creek High School would move back the start of school next year from 8 a.m. to 8:35 a.m., it was welcome news.

“There are kids that do end up with their head on the desk,” Driesenga said. “I think our whole class was excited about the time switch.”

Evidence that's been building for decades says later start times for middle and high school students translate to better school performance, improved mental health and even fewer car crashes by teen drivers.

In recent years, high schools in California, Oklahoma, Georgia and New York have moved back their start times. This fall, the 53,000-student Seattle Public Schools will begin classes at 8:45 a.m. - a full 90 minutes after some Michigan high schoolers drag themselves into class.

But in Michigan, Ewen-Trout Creek is still something of an outlier: Most, Michigan K-12 districts still start high school at 8 a.m. or earlier, some as early as 7:10 a.m.

The Michigan Department of Education does not track school start times. Nor does the Michigan Association of School Boards or the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. But a survey by the U.S. Department of Education of middle schools and high schools in 2011-2012 found that Michigan had an average start time of 7:54 a.m., with between 75 percent and 100 percent of schools starting before 8 a.m. Average start times ranged from 7:40 a.m. in Louisiana to 8:33 a.m. in Alaska.

“This is one of a long list of things we do that is not best for kids,” said David Campbell superintendent of the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency and former superintendent of Olivet Community Schools.

School leaders say they weigh the possibility of improved academic achievement against after-school sports and economics.

Many districts stagger their school start times so that one bus (and one bus driver) can drive upper-grade students on one route, and elementary students afterward, Campbell said.

“Double-bus routes save money because districts need fewer buses and bus drivers,” Campbell said.

When districts stagger start times between elementary and upper-grade schools, the upper grades generally have the earlier start times, Campbell said, because of safety and child-care issues. If start times are staggered, who do you want to be walking to a bus stop in the dark – elementary students or high schoolers?

“No one wants to see a second-grader waiting for a bus along a dark road at 6:30 in the morning,” Campbell said.

“When I was (superintendent) in Olivet, we’d talk about (start times) every year. We wanted to flip it, (so high schoolers would start later in the morning), but we’d always think, do you really want the young kids out at the end of the road in the dark?”

Related: What happened when one Minnesota school district let high schoolers sleep in

Jim Haskins, commissioner of the 50-school OK Conference in West Michigan, said pushing back the start of school would pose obvious conflicts with sporting events that start as early as 4 p.m. Say, for example, Rockford High School, 10 miles north of Grand Rapids, had a 4 p.m. track meet scheduled for East Kentwood High School south of Grand Rapids.

“You run into horrendous traffic that time of day,” Haskins said. “You have to allow for travel time.”

Haskins said sport schedules are set division by division within the conference, with each division agreeing on start times for events. If one school unilaterally moved back the start of school by an hour, that would all but assure some participants would have to be let out early.

“The principals do not like letting kids out of school early,” he said.

North of Grand Rapids, students at Sparta High School and Sparta Middle School commence school at 7:20 a.m. For some students who ride the bus, their pickup comes shortly after 6 a.m. That means in many cases these students are up at 5 a.m.

Superintendent Gordie Nickels says it's been this way for nearly 10 years, prior to a three-year period with an 8 a.m. start time because of a change in bus routes.

Nickels, who's been superintendent the past three years, said he can't recall anyone calling for a later start time.

“I don't think it's ever come up,” he said.

But he added that is aware of evidence that indicates teens learn better when they begin school later.

“I would welcome the discussion,” he said.

Indeed, a growing body of research says that adolescents with early start times arrive at school sleep deprived – in some cases, bordering on narcolepsy.

In 1998, sleep researcher Mary Carskadon of Brown University and several colleagues published a groundbreaking study of adolescents with a school start time of 7:20 a.m. In laboratory sleep tests, it found that many 10th graders on that schedule were “pathologically sleepy” by 8:30 a.m. Some had sleep patterns of narcoleptics.

Carskadon and other sleep experts say that's because of shifts in the adolescent internal biological clock, or circadian rhythm, causing teens to feel awake later at night than older adults. It also may be that this “night owl” state is heightened as teens tap away on cell phones or tablets deep into the evening, tricking their brain to sense wakeful daylight. That further delays the onset of the urge to sleep.

Their body clock tells them to sleep late next morning – but their school schedule says wake up.

“It's as if they get up and go to school but left their brains on the pillow at home,” Carskadon told Bridge Magazine.

Carskadon's findings square with a 2006 survey by the National Sleep Foundation that found 59 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders and 87 percent of high school students were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep. Nearly 30 percent of students reported falling asleep at school at least once a week.

In 2014, researchers at the University of Minnesota published another study that looked at eight high schools in three states before and after they moved to later start times.

It reported that teens with later start times had higher attendance rates, better scores on some national achievement tests and, by and large, fewer car crashes. In schools that moved from a 7:35 a.m. start time to 8:55 a.m., it found a 70 percent reduction in car crashes among 16- to 18-year-olds.

The study concluded: “There are empirically-based outcomes for adolescents whenever their start time of their high school is moved to a later time – with the start time of 8:30 a.m. or later clearly showing the most positive results.”

That's a goal backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advocates a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later for adolescents. It stated that would have “a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety and academic achievement.”

That standard is backed
by the Centers for Disease Control, which stated insufficient sleep “is associated with several health risks such as being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and using drugs – as well as poor academic performance.”

In the Ewen-Trout Creek Schools, Superintendent Alan Tulppo needed no convincing of the merits of a later first bell.

“I am aware of the evidence. We're always looking at ways to improve student achievement,” Tulppo said.

The district surveyed parents about moving the school day back from 8 a.m., giving them three options: 8:15 a.m., 8:35 a.m. or 9 a.m.

The parents chose 8:35 a.m. - a move ratified by the school board in a unanimous vote at its April meeting. Tulppo said there was no opposition.

“It was more a dialogue than an argument,” Tulppo said.

Not surprisingly, Tulppo said: “The students were overwhelmingly in favor of it.”

That includes Jake Witt, 16, a sophomore at Ewen-Trout Creek High School.

Witt said there are school nights he's up until 1 a.m., unable to sleep because of a stressful day at school or homework. He confessed he'll turn to his cell phone when he can't sleep, a habit he realizes may make things worse.

He described what the next day after such night is like: “You are sitting there and your head is kind of bobbing. It makes you want to lay your head down and rest. But you don't want to miss out on the class.”

It's been a different story in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

In 2012, a 14-person committee looked at moving back the start of school, before ultimately rejecting the idea. At the time, then-Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Services Alesia Flye said the committee was “not convinced the research suggests that if we make these huge adjustments, we will see huge academic gains.”

But the board revisited the issue in 2015, voting in March to make incremental changes in high school start times, moving it back by 15 minutes to 7:45 a.m. at one high school and by five minutes to 7:45 a.m. at two others. District administrators at the time said they would continue to look for ways to push start times to 8 a.m.

The move drew considerable online comment from parents, some faulting the board for taking such timid steps toward a later start time.

But there were doubts about moving the start of school back as well, including this comment: “The schools don't need to alter their schedules for our high school students. The students need to suck it up and manage themselves. After all, who will do this for them after they graduate from high school? 80% of life is just showing up.”

Brown University sleep researcher Carskadon told Bridge that entrenched skepticism about the science of sleep continues to impede widespread adoption of later school start times. She said the debate is often shaped by what's convenient for adults rather what's best for learning.

“This kind of, 'Suck it up, Buttercup' approach is really not well informed. It's not useful and it's not a public health strategy.

“The job of adolescents isn't just to show up. They have work to do. They need to learn. They need to grow their brains. This matters a lot. If they are wandering through school half awake, it isn't going to be successful.”

There are signs of a shift in this debate.

In 2015, after studying it for years, Seattle Public Schools became one of the largest districts in the nation to adopt a start time later than 8:30 a.m. Beginning in fall 2016, high schools and most middle schools in this district of about 53,000 students will commence first class at 8:45 a.m.

Pegi McAvoy, assistant superintendent of operations for the district, said the decision to roll back the start of school did not come easily. Prior to the 6-1 vote by the school board approving the move, a 30-member task for months studied start time proposals, finally recommending options close to what the board adopted.

Some parents objected. Others raised concerns about how it would affect sports and busing.

But by and large, McAvoy said, the later start time “is clearly what the community wanted to do.”

McAvoy said in the long run the winners in the time shift will be students.

“Clearly the adolescents are thinking this will be a winner. The high school teachers, in particular the first-hour teachers, think it will be a winner.”

In Grand Rapids, most high schools in the state's second largest district start around 7:30 a.m. Many of its middle schools start at 7:15 a.m.

In an ideal world, said district Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, high school and middle school students might begin school later.

“I have looked at the research over the years,” Neal said. “I think it would be wonderful for kids.”

But Neal said moving back to the recommended 8:30 a.m. start time would likely mean many sports participants would miss the last hour of class.

“Missing an hour of class, that's quite a bit,” Neal said.

Neal said moving start times back would only work if all schools in the area adopted similar schedules, a subject she expected would come up in the next meeting of Kent County's 21 superintendents.

“I am sure this will be one of the topics we will talk about.”

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Gloria Woods
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 9:52am
The research has shown for years that teens need a later school start time, yet schools are reluctant to move to later school start times --- out of concern for sports?! Which do we value more highly for our kids? Better health and improved learning for all, or the more convenient schedule for sports teams, which are a small minority of students (who also deserve the benefits of a good night's sleep!)?
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 1:05pm
Well said Gloria. My thoughts exactly. Seems too much importance is placed on sports now days.
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 6:07pm
You beat me to the punch. Sports are unimportant - school is for learning. If the US is to remain globally competitive, it will be due to students' scholastic success and not their ability to move a ball down a field.
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 10:00am
This shouldn't even be an issue schools are working to fix. This is just another "pandering to make our kids soft" action. What are the kids gonna do when they hit the real world where work starts at 8am and lasts till 5 or even are they going to figure out how to find time to buy groceries, make dinner, socialize, etc if we don't start teaching them time management skills NOW! PARENTS need to fix this by teaching their kids early about time management and enforced bed times. (10 year olds now are staying up till 10, 11, 12, THIS IS NOT ENOUGH SLEEP, but the parents don't enforce any bedtimes!) Get the phones/tvs/ipads/xboxs OUT of the bedrooms. Teach kids about balancing responsibilities, duties, expectations, and THEN they can allow time for extracurricular activities. School gets out around 3pm...EVEN IF kids have practice/sporting events/social events, they can practice time management and CHOOSING RESPONSIBILITY BEFORE FUN ACTIVITIES and get their homework done BEFORE engaging in social media, BETWEEN the school day and their sports practice or game, etc!
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 12:12pm
You are speaking of something called discipline which also speaks to parents as well. It no longer works to tell a child do as I say and not as I do. If bed time is 10:00 PM then that means everybody.
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 11:05am
I agree that school starts too early. But kids are dozing off because they're unhealthy. Even ones that appear to be in shape might still partake in sugary treats. Sugar has bad after effects, and screws up the body's natural functions. Sugar doesn't allow you to sleep well through the night, so you are tired the next day, usually prompting more sugar intake. A lot of kids are drinking caffeine, which is insanely bad for them. Caffeine and sugar have the same dangerous loop. Ingest today and you'll need some the next day to keep going. The best solution (for any problem) is to make sure kids are eating a completely natural and mostly organic diet of whole foods. Lots of fruits and vegetables, rice, beans, and fish. We have so many hidden dangers in the American "diet" that it's no wonder we are experiencing so many problems in our society.
chester marx
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 11:35am
Why isn't school about education?
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 12:34pm
Many of you are saying that education is more important so we need to move the starting time to a later time. It is important. Here is the catch. You move it back and then when students leave for sports they miss classes. They could miss as much as 2+ hours of class time. How is this any better? In the spring it's not a once in a while issue. It's multiple times a week. Not sure what the solution is for this issue.
John Q. Public
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 9:20pm
The solution is to emulate nearly every other developed country in the world and have sports be non-school-affiliated. The club model works far better, and also divorces us from the ridiculous philosophy that in order to be allowed play sports, one must be proficient in academics. I coached a club team, and every activity--meetings, games, practices--commenced after 6 p.m.
Wed, 06/01/2016 - 8:11am
I would agree but high school sports are so ingrained in American culture and school district identity that I don't see it ever happening.
Sun, 06/05/2016 - 2:31pm
Have consider a different approach to sports? Have you wonder why it is so visible, why it draws so much energy/time from kids and adults, why seemingly un-engaged kids get engage at school, how sports has leverage to get a minimum effort in the classroom, why kids with no seeming exceptional-ism begin to excel? Are there things we can learn for school athletics that can be applied to academics and yield better results?
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 12:55pm
Kate you have a good point BUT when 50 plus percent of our students are on free or reduced lunches they aren't going to get organic or the natural foods you suggest. when they get home. Sports play far too an important role in our schools and society in general and that is not likely to change. Peace R.L.
Robyn Tonkin
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 2:09pm
As this society moves further and further away from a being a disciplined, personal goal oriented society, the identified "ills" become more and more absurd. How come I wasn't falling asleep at Trenton High School in the late 1960's and early 1970's? How come I could do well in difficult subjects with lots of homework? It's because my parents strictly controlled my social life, and the amount of tv I watched and how long my phone conversations were. I came home, did my homework, had dinner, watched a parent-approved tv show or two, and went to bed. We raised our daughter the same way. SHE stayed awake in high school with no problem, had minimal sports involvement (we disapprove of sports), and graduated from a Big 10 school with three years of advanced math classes under her belt. Today, she is a wife, mother and IT in the active Navy. She and her husband are actively planning how they will keep their son away from social media to a large extent, because social media is a huge part of the problem. Another huge part of the problem is the rotten diet Americans have today. How do you expect an adolescent to do well in school, and in particular be alert in the morning, on a diet rich, not in protein, vegetables, and healthy fats, but rich instead in corn oil, corn sweetener, and corn and soy flours. The causes of adolescent morning lethargy are not hard to identify when you have the courage to blame the true causes--lack of substantive parental involvement in teens' daily lives, and agribusiness.
Wed, 06/01/2016 - 6:28pm
In the 1960s and 1970s, schools did not begin as early as they do now. If you were to find a copy of your school schedule, I am sure you would find a start time of 8 or 8:30. The research on teen sleep finds that even an extra 30 min at this time is high quality sleep and is very beneficial. We know so much more now about how the brain works, how during adolescence there is a "sleep phase shift" so that the hormonal signals that induce sleep are released around 11 pm and continue until 8 am. In the early 20s (a bit later for males), hormonal regulation of sleep shifts again to the pattern we recognize as "adult". I don't understand why we should ignore this important new information that we have on the brain and sleep; we can use it to help our kids achieve more academically and also improve their health long term. This benefits the entire community in healthcare savings. Not to mention taking a lot of sleep deprived drivers off the roads.
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 3:22pm
Its a different world these days, class of 1971 for me. Don't remember being sleepy in school and I was usually in bed by 10 PM each night. We had TV of course but no internet.
Kenneth Earl Kolk
Tue, 05/31/2016 - 4:40pm
As a secondary teacher for years I knew that high school and middle school students were half asleep until our third hour (which started about 9:30 AM, given we started first hour at 7:30 AM). The academic staff advocated we return to the old 9:00 AM start for all schools that we had when I first started teaching. But the School Board, made up of members of the athletic and band boosters and local businessmen who hired high school students at minimum wages after school to fill in when they were busiest. So we went to a 7:30 AM start; double bus runs; longer after school practice times; earlier start times for after school employment; etc. at the expense of quality education. Recent studies are showing that Michigan's 4th graders are scoring 47th on tests of their reading and math skills are not surprising given the years that concerns for non academic activities have been dominate. Now we are reaping what we have sewed for years.
Wed, 06/01/2016 - 3:38pm
I am trying to understand this article. Is it that the students need 8 hours of sleep or is that their school starting time needs to be later in the day so they can stay up later? If it is the former what is there to suggest that kids that are going to bed at midnight with the shift in when they need to arise for school will not be staying up till one or two doing what they now do from ten to twelve? If it is the latter then how will they learn that when the leave high school that the world will not be so accommodating? When will they learn to have consideration for the demands on others? I K-12 only purpose to provide information available in books or is it to be part of the process that prepares them to survive in the world they will be living in?
Rob L
Wed, 06/01/2016 - 10:30pm
It should be an easy fix given the vast amount of data to support a shift. I've been advocating for years:
Wed, 06/01/2016 - 10:35pm
I just find the "what are students going to do when they hit the real world" response to be laughable. I work in Education, though I've worked for Corporations and Higher Ed as well. We most certainly need to teach students skills like preparedness, dependability, etc. But that DOESN'T mean they have to start school so early. Most office jobs start at 8:00, many not until 8:30 or 9:00. This is for ADULTS! If research shows a later start time would be more conducive to their NATURAL sleep cycle, why wouldn't we accommodate that? Because they need to "get used to the real world?" Why? When others are starting work after they've been in school for an hour? And when these same people started at 8:00 - like myself - or later once upon a time? So hypocritical, and missing the point anyway. In reality, YOUNGER students would be much better suited to start earlier (as their body wakes them up sooner) than their older siblings. And once upon a time, it was that way. Must not have been "reality" enough .... or, more likely, convenient enough for those saying "suck it up" now.
Fri, 06/03/2016 - 12:17am
Eric, You have had a different experience than I. Whether it was involvement in 24/7 operations with various shift schedules, with the need to be on time to take over from a person who has already worked at least a full shift, or jobs that necessitated being in at nonstandard times because of your time zone, especially in a global environment, or it was having responsibility for ensuring data/ information was available, prepared, and presented to those who would be using it, or being one responsible for developing the plans and actions involving others, seldom did I have the luxury of arriving as late as 8. Similarly my experiences with other professions such as medical care whose work day started before 8 and teachers who I doubt start their work day only when students arrive in the classroom. It seems many people in their ‘real world’ don’t have your luxury of starting work at 8 or 9. As best I can tell there are many, especially well paid professionals, that start their workday at before 8, and they must manage themselves/their time to accommodate others and to meet their professional responsibilities. The earlier the student learns the good habit of personal management/time management I would say the earlier they will reduce the pressures are experiencing or that they are placing on others.
Thu, 06/02/2016 - 11:26am
School routines were established long before the scientific study on child development occurred. And I think I remember reading somewhere that school daily schedules were designed to replicate manufacturing job routines. Plus the sports component of schools has intensified and become more important over the years. But school for anyone under 19 should always have education as the top priority, and if starting schools later would improve educational advancement, then it should be a no-brainer move.
Fri, 06/03/2016 - 12:27am
Charlene, If I have learn one thing it is there is no such thing as a 'no brainer.' All I hear about in this article and in many of the comments is exclusively about the student, no consideration is made for the impact of changing school start times on others, from the parents, to those who work in the school systems, to such considerations of how to manage the impact of a later end to the day or if the students will shift their daily routines accordingly and still not get 8 hours of sleep. Have you considered the cost of simply changing the road signs that require slowing traffic during school hours [how many have actual time of day on them], is that a negligible cost? Do people really think the students are the center of the universe and consideration for all others should be ignored?
Sun, 06/05/2016 - 9:50am
The research coming from Cornell univ. Has been clear on this topic for several years. Athletic program schedules continue to dominate school schedules despite public interest in higher school achievement.
Mon, 06/06/2016 - 8:39am
Many exchange students who come to the US are amazed that sports are such a big deal at the high school level rather than academics.