Matt Driscoll

Later high school start times in Tacoma are a no-brainer. So what’s taking so long?

AJ Katzaroff, a local high school science teacher, has witnessed it firsthand.

She knows her students are getting more sleep because she’s seen the study results.

She knows their academic performance has improved because she grades their work.

She knows there have been fewer tardies and absences because she’s the one taking attendance.

Overall, Katzaroff knows the transition to later high school start times in her district was mostly smooth, that the educators and families quickly figured it out, and that — in her words — it “clearly improved learning.”

So Katzaroff’s question for Tacoma:

What’s the holdup?

For the last seven years, Katzaroff has taught biology and environmental science at Franklin High in Seattle. In fall 2016, after a 6-1 vote by the Seattle School Board the previous school year, the district pushed back the start time at her school — and all Seattle high schools — from 7:50 a.m. to 8:45 a.m.

It’s a shift that makes so much sense that the American Academy of Pediatrics and plenty of other official sounding organizations recommend it, not to mention this columnist. Turns out, teenagers need more sleep than they typically get (who knew?) — leading the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to note that “most U.S. middle and high schools start the school day too early.”

Well, nearly four years later, Tacoma appears closer than ever to finally heading down Seattle’s path.

It’s about time.

As The News Tribune’s Allison Needles has reported, adjusting high school start times has been discussed at recent school board meetings. It’s talk that comes after an organized group of local students launched the Tacoma Sleepyheads Campaign and began pushing for it, picking up steam and momentum.

In July, Tacoma Public Schools spokesperson Dan Voelpel told The News Tribune the district wasn’t considering pushing back high school start times. Voelpel noted, however, that the district was open to the conversation.

Officially, Voelpel said this week that “not much has changed” in the district’s stance, though he acknowledged that school officials are discussing “a number of issues to study and, potentially, implement” — including adjusted bell times.

Board member Enrique Leon was appointed to the position last year and is currently running for Position 2 against Kristopher Kerns, a Tacoma native and father of three.

Leon has long been a proponent of pushing back school start times. The family practice physician cites “evidence that’s been there for nearly 25 years” when explaining his position.

Though Leon added he’s been frustrated by how long it’s taken to get to this point, he nonetheless believes change is coming eventually.

“I think we are going to do it,” said Leon, noting that that school board will be discussing the matter at an upcoming committee of the whole meeting and hopefully during study sessions to come. “The question is when.”

If school board decision makers need convincing, Seattle’s experience provides a good starting point.

Katzaroff doesn’t just teach science in Seattle schools, her classes have participated in it as part of a study by the University of Washington and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

In spring 2016 before the new start times took effect, sophomores enrolled in Katzaroff’s biology class were fitted with activity monitors. The same was true for a similar group of students at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School.

The devices tracked light and the students’ activity levels over a two-week period, collecting data every 15 seconds. Parts of the study were incorporated into classroom curriculum.

The following school year, after the bell schedule was pushed back, another cohort of students at Franklin and Roosevelt were fitted with the devices. The same information was collected and then compared.

In results published in the journal Science Advances, researchers found a median 34-minute increase in sleep each night for students after the change.

Overall, median sleep per night for students increased from six hours and 50 minutes to seven hours and 24 minutes, they found.

“The study … revealed that, after the change in school start time, students did not stay up significantly later: They simply slept in longer, a behavior that scientists say is consistent with the natural biological rhythms of adolescents,” the UW noted in a subsequent press release.

Meanwhile, researchers also observed additional benefits. On weekends, for instance, students’ wake-up time moved closer to what they were on weekdays.

School tardies and absences during the week decreased.

Even better, at least in the biology classes that were monitored, grades improved — by an average of 4.5 percent.

According to Leon, the findings in Seattle mirror those collected in larger studies across the country. Over the years, he said, later high school start times have routinely been found to significantly improve academic performance and attendance, while also improving things like depression, bullying and overall happiness.

So case closed, then?

Not exactly.

While the evidence in support of later start times is plentiful, the change is tricky. It forces districts to battle what Leon described as the general inertia of a community that’s accustomed to doing something one way for a very long time. School officials also have to figure out practical matters like potential busing complications and different needs for before- and after-school child care.

For instance, in Seattle, the district decided to include most middle schools and some K-8 schools it its 8:45 a.m. start time, while most of the district’s elementary schools began starting earlier, at 7:55 a.m.

Whatever plan Tacoma comes up with is to be determined, Leon said. Nothing has been decided. The first step will be commencing an official study, he explained, and decisions will be made from there.

Considering the evidence, Leon said it’s “amazing we’ve taken this long” to reach even such a preliminary point.

Better late than never, I guess.

Just take it from Katzaroff.

“I would absolutely do this,” she said when asked to impart advice on Tacoma’s leaders.

“If our primary goal is to do our best job educating kids, all the data and science point to this being extremely effective.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.