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Could later start times become a reality at Tacoma schools? ‘Sleepyheads’ working on it

Young students advocate for later start times

The Tacoma SleepyHeads Campaign - lead by middle and high school students - says later class start times will benefit student health and performance.
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The Tacoma SleepyHeads Campaign - lead by middle and high school students - says later class start times will benefit student health and performance.

Tacoma student Connar Mon wakes up for school by intentionally falling off his bed.

It’s a trick he learned to get up in time to make it to Stewart Middle School, where classes start at 8 a.m.

“It’s very hard waking up,” said the ninth-grader.

That’s why Mon and his friends started the Tacoma Sleepyheads Campaign six months ago.

“We’re advocating for later school start times in high school and/or middle school,” Mon said. “We believe (they) should start at 8:30 a.m. or later.”

The campaign has reached thousands of people online, Mon said. The group has met with hundreds of students — and teachers — face to face.

Last week, the group made its case to the Tacoma Public Schools Board of Directors, arguing that studies show later start times improve graduation rates, attendance, mental health and GPAs of students. The group also pointed out that Seattle Public Schools made the change in 2016 with visible improvements.

“There are no demonstrable health or learning benefits to support early start times for middle school and high school,” Mon told the board on June 27.

District officials aren’t considering changing school start times right now, district spokesman Dan Voelpel told The News Tribune, but they’re open to the conversation.

It’s not the first time the topic has surfaced. Multiple candidates running for school board this year brought up their support of later start times.

“The evidence around that is kids do better physically, mentally in regards to their health — and then along with that, they get better GPAs, they graduate at better rates,” school board director Enrique Leon told The News Tribune in May. “The benefits are so vast that we should really be having high school (start times) be delayed.”

Leon also works as a doctor of family medicine for MultiCare and has been working closely with the Sleepyheads. The school board has not yet directed Superintendent Carla Santorno to pursue a change.

After the Sleepyheads’ presentation, Santorno requested information from Seattle regarding its bell time change process so that “in the future, if the issue becomes a higher priority here, that we would have some background as a starting point,” Voelpel said.

“The board is in preliminary agreement, but we all need time for a review by all the stakeholders,” Leon told The News Tribune in an email.

‘SLEEPYHEADS’ UNITE

Mon always thought that classes at Stewart should start later.

It wasn’t until he was researching the topic for a school project that he realized just how much he supported the cause. He shared his research with his friends.

“We were like, ‘Yeah, we all want the change,’” Mon said.

They came up with their campaign name — Tacoma Sleepyheads — and made an email, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts that gained 200 followers in one day.They attended public events and handed out flyers. They amassed a three-page bibliography of sources and studies.

Members of Tacoma Sleepyheads found many students felt the same they did.

Stadium High freshman Vy Nguyen and Stewart eighth grader Xanat Williams-Romo are members of Tacoma Sleepyheads. They both said they set multiple alarms to trick their brains into thinking they have a few more minutes of sleep.

Freshman Julio Martinez had to wake up extra early last year to take the city bus to Stewart Middle for 8 a.m. classes because there’s no school bus to take him, he said. Next year, his classes start at 7:35 a.m at Lincoln High.

Martinez, who plays sports and goes to the gym after school, said he doesn’t get to bed until around 11 p.m. and is up at 6:30 a.m. and feels exhausted at school.

“I’d just be really tired,” he said.

WHAT ABOUT AFTER SCHOOL?

The group has heard some counterarguments.

Starting later means staying later.

The district has to consider how later start times would impact after school day care, working students and sports, which are already cutting into instruction time if students have to travel, Voelpel said.

“What I would ask in return is, don’t student athletes have to have good grades in order to do athletics? They do,” said Williams-Romo. “But earlier start times is commonly associated with bad grades, especially if you have a core class in your first period.”

Later start times for high school and middle school students would likely mean elementary students would have to go to school earlier, as bus schedules are staggered. If that were the case, elementary students could be waiting for buses when it’s dark in the mornings, Voelpel said.

“We would need to do some extensive surveying of our parents’ community to determine globally that this is something that can have broad support,” he said.

Tacoma School Board director Scott Heinze said he’s willing to explore the change, but there’s a lot to consider.

“It’s complicated,” Heinze said. “It’s extracurriculars, it’s sports, it’s buses, it’s after-school care, it’s parents.”

SUPPORTED BY SCIENCE

The Sleepyheads say their cause is supported by science.

A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics states that “ the average teenager in today’s society has difficulty falling asleep before 11 p.m. and is best suited to wake at 8 a.m. or later.”

Seattle Public Schools changed start times for secondary schools from 7:50 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. A study by Science Advances released last December on two Seattle teens showed they got an average of 34 extra minutes of sleep per school night when the start times were pushed back. Final grades of the teens were also 4.5 percent higher.

A teacher at Franklin High School in Seattle also reported that the number of students who were tardy or absence decreased, putting the lower-income school on par with higher-income schools, NPR reported.

Olympia School District is currently considering later start times.

“There’s nothing to lose here,” Williams-Romo said. “The worst-case scenario is things will stay the same after the delay. The best-case scenario — graduation rates, they go up. GPAs go up.”

LEADER SUPPORT

The Sleepyheads know that the change won’t happen overnight.

Mon’s hope is to have a later start time by the time his cousin is in high school.

“She’s in fourth grade right now,” Mon said. “I want it for her in high school, so she won’t have to worry about dragging herself up in the morning, putting herself in the shower and try to feel awake.”

Along with support from current board members, Tacoma school board candidates Kristopher Kerns and Lisa Keating voiced support for the change.

“My daughter had the benefit of being on the elementary schedule from K-8 by attending Geiger and Bryant Montessori schools,” Keating said. “Bryant’s middle school program is on the elementary schedule, so I can speak firsthand about the benefits of a later start time as a parent.”

“If I were elected, I would do everything in my power to make their goal a reality,” Kerns said.

The Sleepyheads are looking into economic impacts and district policies and have meetings scheduled with the health department and the superintendent, Mon said. They plan to speak again at Thursday’s school board meeting.

Mon said later start times can benefit Tacoma as a whole by causing fewer car accidents in the morning and getting students to graduate and get jobs.

“I am aware of the (district’s) $30 million budget cut,” Mon said. “But if we find money to get this later start time changing rolling, it will benefit this district in the long run.”

They don’t intend to take no for an answer.

“We’re going to be working twice as hard if it’s going to be hard to sway them,” Mon said. “They work for us.”

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