Wake high schools could start later. It might be healthier, but is it practical?

Wake County could swap high school and elementary school start times beginning in the 2024-25 school year to give teens more time to sleep.

Wake County school administrators said Monday they want the public’s feedback on potentially swapping current school bell schedules so that elementary schools start earlier at 7:30 a.m. and high schools begin later at 9:15 a.m.

Edward McFarland, Wake’s chief academic advancement officer, said it’s not yet an official recommendation to have elementary schools run from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and high schools from 9:15 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. But he said the example will help the community see what a new schedule could look like.

The proposal comes amid research showing that Wake’s current high school start time of 7:25 a.m. doesn’t meet students’ sleep needs. But some raised concerns Monday that starting high schools later could cause other problems such as childcare issues for parents and whether teens get after-school jobs or participate in sports.

“We’re under no illusion that with any change there are going to be pain points,” McFarland told the board. “Research may say one thing is better for adolescents but the parents and the community may have different ideas and different choices that they would make.”

Some districts have already shifted their schedules to have high schools start later. In California, state law requires high school to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

In 2017, Durham Public Schools flipped its schedules to start elementary schools earlier at 7:45 a.m. and high schools later at 9:15 a.m. After the switch, McFarland said a majority of Durham parents and school employees rated the change negatively in a survey.

Sleep research for teens

More than a decade of national research studies have supported the idea that early start times don’t help teens. Wake administrators presented research Monday such as how:

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools begin at 8:30 a.m. or later to better align with the circadian rhythms of adolescents

Victoria Merida, junior, works during her physical science blended class at Millbrook High School Wednesday morning, February 17, 2021.
Victoria Merida, junior, works during her physical science blended class at Millbrook High School Wednesday morning, February 17, 2021.

Nationwide, approximately 60% of middle school students and 87% of high school students don’t get enough sleep

Research has shown that the average American adolescent is chronically sleep deprived

Internal body clocks for adolescents shift so it’s more difficult for them to go to sleep before 11 p.m. and wake up before 8 a.m.

“In other words, adolescents are biologically programmed to fall asleep later in the evening,” according to Wake’s presentation. “Even though they fall asleep in the evening, they still require 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night.”

McFarland presented other research showing how lack of sleep negatively impacts academic performance. This includes a study of how shifting five Wake high schools to an earlier start time saw increases in absenteeism, tardiness and dropout rates.

School board member Jim Martin questioned how reliable the studies were, saying that more also needs to be done to analyze what happened after changes were made to bell schedules.

Board member Monika Johnson-Hostler questioned how much extra sleep teens would get from a change. She recalled talking with high school students who said they want to start school later but would stay up later as well.

“That’s the truth that exists regardless of of what we do,” said Johnson Hostler, who has a daughter in high school.

Examples for new start times

Wake uses a three-tier system in which the same bus makes multiple runs in the morning and afternoon. This reduces the number of buses that are needed.

In the first tier, high schools run from 7:25 a.m. to 2:18 p.m. Middle schools are on the second tier and run from 8:15 a.m to 3 p.m. Elementary schools are on the third tier and run from 9:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.

The idea of changing Wake’s times has been discussed for years. In March 2021, administrators laid out three examples for potential new start times:

Example 1 would keep high schools on the first tier, middle schools on the second tier and elementary schools on third tier. But it would shift start times 30, 45 or 60 minutes later.

Example 2 would swap the tier assignments for elementary and high schools. Middle schools would keep their current times.

Example 3 would be a combination of the first two options that would start school later and have elementary schools on the first tier and high schools on the third. For instance, one scenario could have elementary schools run from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and high schools from 10:15 a.m. to 5:10 p.m.

In March of this year, the district blamed dealing with COVID for putting the planning on hold.

On Monday, McFarland said they could operate Example 2 without needing any additional bus drivers or buses.

“This is an example and not a recommendation at this time,” McFarland said. “But it does allow for start times to be later for high school students.”

Major implications from change

Starting elementary schools at 7:30 a.m. and ending high schools at 4:10 p.m. has major implications.

Parents would have to adjust their schedules. Some school employees might not be able to keep their second job.

Before-school and after-school childcare providers would have to adjust their schedules. Families would likely lose the option of having high school students look after their younger siblings after-school.

And parents may not feel comfortable with elementary school students waiting so early in the morning for the bus.

“Whatever we change for a three-tier bell schedule, somebody will be at a bus stop in the morning in the dark,” said Superintendent Cathy Moore.

The shift would also impact after-school activities such as athletics, clubs and student jobs.

“Some of our students need to work after school,” said board member Karen Carter. “That’s something they need to do.”

Based on what’s happened in other districts, Moore said student athletes would likely have to leave at the time they go now. This means less instructional time if high schools run later in the afternoon.

Surveying the public

Before any change would go into effect, administrators hope to solicit feedback according to the following schedule.

October to December: Survey groups such as parents, students, school employees and childcare providers. Hold town halls and focus groups.

January 2023: Compile information from the different groups.

February 2023: Share the information with the school board, which could direct staff to develop a new bell schedule based on the information.

April 2023: School board adopt new start times for the 2024-25 school year.

Johnson-Hostler, the board member, said she’s glad that students will be surveyed.

“I think the students can help us set realistic barometers that will directly show you the impact of what time they go to school,” Johnson-Hostler said. “I think they’re the best truth-tellers.”