On December 14, 2015, the Wayzata School Board voted unanimously to change its school start times for the 2016-2017 academic year and beyond. Wayzata High School’s start was moved back to 8:20 a.m., the three middle schools’ times to 9:10 a.m. and the elementary schools’ start times were moved to either 7:45 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. Start time changes were carefully considered over a period of years and were influenced by constituencies and factors that included student, family and staff input, bus schedules, after school activities and, most importantly, age-appropriate, science-based guidance emanating from pediatric medicine.
By any comparison, the leadership displayed by Wayzata Public Schools’ administration and School Board up to and including its historic, December 2015 vote must be considered both forward looking and courageous. And, although the pandemic-influenced educational models and start times deployed during the past 15 months have been fluid, new evidence supports the start time changes implemented by the district and a growing number of school districts.
In its report dated May 7, 2021, and entitled “School Start Time Research,” the Association of Metropolitan School Districts describes positive outcomes related to changes in school start times. In addressing the question, “What are the academic and recommended sleep impacts of changing start times?” Michael Rodriguez of the University of Minnesota’s Educational Psychology Program and Youth Development Group, along with Bloomington Public Schools’ Julio Caesar, David Heistad and Rik Lamm, found that improvements in both sleep and academic performance are associated with the kinds of changes in school start times adopted by Wayzata Schools.
Using data from the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, conducted every three years with students in fifth, eighth, ninth and 11th grades, and with 81% of Minnesota’s public school districts participating, this research team found that students in all four grades – in school districts where start times were changed – experienced small but statistically significant increases in sleep time and academic performance.
Chace Anderson was serving as superintendent in 2015 and continues to lead our school district now. The 2015 School Board included Linda Cohen, Cheryl Polzin, Chris McCullough, Sarah Johansen, Andrea Cuene, Carter Peterson and Jay Hesby. All but Peterson and Hesby continue to serve.
Prior to joining Wayzata Schools, Anderson served Edina Public Schools, where Ken Dragseth, superintendent when Edina changed its start times, considered start time changes to be one of the most important policy decisions made during his tenure. Similarly, at the time of Wayzata’s School Board vote, Anderson predicted that changes in start times would be “responsive to and prioritize students’ developmental learning needs.” He went on to acknowledge there would doubtless “be some implementation challenges and the changes will require adjustments from students, staff, families and the community.”
The fact is, most high school students and many middle school students have difficulty falling asleep. It is a naturally occurring, transient phenomenon tied, in part, to hormonal changes and their related circadian rhythms; the internal processes that regulate one’s sleep-wake cycle. It’s unavoidable and can result in cumulative sleep deprivation of up to ten hours per week. Countless child development experts have addressed the benefits of better sleep, including less reliance on caffeine, tobacco and alcohol; reductions in mood swings, anxiety, irritability, symptoms of depression, obesity, memory impairments and other health risks; improved learning, academic performance and motivation; and better choices and life satisfaction, in general. Better sleep can also contribute to a reduction in car crashes.
For all their benefits, a myriad of challenges unquestionably accompany changes in school start times. For example, some elementary school children must start school earlier than before, child care and family schedules must be adapted, after-school activities are affected, and the logistics of bus schedules take on new complexity; especially in larger districts such as Wayzata.
But as Esther Dale, a mother of elementary, middle school and high school students in 2015, observed when start time changes were adopted, “The sacrifice is worth it for the quality of education.” And as Beth Albright - long time champion for start time changes - recently stated, “The School Board and Superintendent did the very hard but right thing for the greatest number of kids.”
Looking back, I salute the courageous leadership and dedication consistently modeled by Anderson and the School Board.
Dan Haugen has a doctorate in social work, is a retired health care/social services and higher education executive and currently serves on the Wayzata School District’s Legislative Action Committee and the Youthprise Board of Directors.