JACKSON TWP — This year, Seneca Valley School District students got to start sleeping in a little more.
Now, halfway through the academic year, qualitative evidence to support the change has been pouring in.
“We have some anecdotals but haven’t pulled all the data yet,” said Tracy Vitale, district superintendent.
Vitale said the district needs to wait an entire year to compile statistics on the differences in attendance, tardiness and classroom engagement. The 2018-19 school year is the first that the adjusted starting time has been used.
She said they would have a better idea of areas of improvement in May.
“For now, we’re getting very good feedback,” she said.
The decision to delay the start time came over the course of 10 years’ worth of research, with the past five years providing the most meaningful data to back the switch, Vitale said.
The district approved pushing back the start time by 35 minutes in April 2018.
Vitale explained that cognitive and neuroscience research shows that most adult brains begin releasing melatonin, a chemical that controls sleep cycles, somewhere between 9 to 10 p.m. By 11 p.m., most fully developed brains are tired and then will sleep for about seven or eight hours to feel fully rested again.
In a teenage brain, melatonin doesn’t get released until 10:30, 11 or 11:30 p.m. and their brains require more sleep to continue developing. So when students wake up at 6 a.m. to go to school, it is comparable to an adult waking up at 3 or 4 a.m., Vitale said.
“Unless you’re living with a teenager, you’re not thinking about it,” Vitale said. “You don’t notice it, (but) if students aren’t well-rested, it doesn’t matter how great teaching techniques are if they aren’t ready to learn.”
In addition to the medical benefits of extending teens’ sleep schedules, Vitale said parents and students have both reported feeling safer now that they are going into school in daylight. This makes parents worry less about their students standing in the dark at a bus stop or that their student drivers are too tired to get themselves to school safely.
The student perspective
Vitale said she’s been meeting with groups of about 15 students for lunch, starting with the senior class and working her way down to younger grades, to ask for feedback about their school experiences.
Seniors and juniors, the two classes she’s met with so far, both agreed that they feel much better coming to school with the later start time, Vitale said.
She said most of the feedback will come from ninth- to 12th-grade students who should noticed the biggest differences between years of starting at 7:34 a.m. and the current 8:09 a.m. start time for seventh- to 12th-grade students.
Vitale said students often say things like “we can’t thank you enough for late start.”
So far, Vitale said teachers have noted that students are “more alert and better prepared to learn” in their first period classes.
The students Vitale has spoken with have also reportedly requested even later start times, which Vitale said she would love to give them but it would be complicated to organize.
“(We) can’t do that unless other schools move their times because of transportation and athletics,” she said. “If no other school does that, it presents logistics issues. For instance, the vo-tech school is shared and because no other school moved their time, the vocational students needed to stay on schedule.”
To do this, Vitale said the district had to overhaul bus routes and “build from scratch” new ones.
This caused about a $200,000 hit on Seneca Valley’s budget. However, Vitale said the expense did not have “a significant impact on a $100 million budget” and that the benefits of students getting more sleep outweighed that cost.
James Pearson, transportation director, spent a large portion of the 2017-18 school year electronically rebuilding school bus routes, Vitale said. Starting from scratch on the routes helped the district come up with the most efficient and affordable way of initiating this change, she said. In the end, a few more buses and vans were added to accommodate vocational and special needs students.
Vitale said making a change like this effective also requires commitments from athletic directors who organize after-school sports and transportation.
All this work saved the district quite a bit of money, Vitale said, whereas other districts spent about half a million to move start times without making other changes. Some districts, she noted, only pushed start times back 15 minutes.
“If a district isn’t going to commit to at least 30 more minutes,” she said, “all the work and extra money probably isn’t worth it.”
Vitale said neighboring districts have looked into later start times, and some in Allegheny County have already made the switch.
Grove City chose to do a “flip late start,” which makes elementary students start their days earlier and end earlier while secondary students would go in later and end later, Vitale said. This works because ages 5 to 11 typically are more alert earlier in the morning.
“In our district, we didn’t feel flipping would work because of the number of double-working parents in our district,” Vitale said. She said it would create a need for many parents to find day care services since their children’s schedules wouldn’t line up with their own.
Vitale also mentioned that a “pleasant surprise” that came from the transportation change was an alleviation of traffic issues. Teachers, buses, student drivers and parents driving their children to school are now staggered in the times they come and go.
“(Traffic) is the best this year that it has been in 16 years,” she said.