Irene Hartzell, PhD – Educational Consultant

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What’s Happening with Seattle Public Schools?

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The national spotlight was on the Seattle Public Schools November 18, 2015 when the School Board voted to start high school at 8:30 am or later, following the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Seattle is one of the largest districts in the country to make the decision to start school an hour later than previously. This successful campaign began about four years ago.

Beginning in fall of 2016 all the Seattle district’s high schools and all but one middle school will be in session from 8:45 am until 3:15 pm.   These later start times will better match the teen’s biological clocks.

Most elementary and K-8 school day schedules will start one hour earlier than now.

These later high school and middle school start times were made possible because parents and the school board were willing to follow the recommendations of sleep scientists and make the needs of the students a priority.

Dr. Maida Chen, Director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic at Seattle Children’s Hospital enlisted the prestigious expertise of Dr. Judith Owens, Director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders. Dr. Chen, Dr. Owens, together with over 30 local Seattle sleep doctors and Dr. Nathaniel Watson, UW Neurology Professor, Director of the Harborview Medical Center Sleep Clinic and President of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine succeeded in persuading the Seattle School Board to “do the right thing in the interest of student health, safety and well-being.”

As noted in blog #1, in adolescence teenagers become biological night owls who are more alert later in the day and have difficulty falling asleep at night. Later school start times improve their health, mood, attendance and in some cases, learning.

Other nearby Puget Sound area school districts such as Bellevue, Issaquah, Lake Washington, Mercer Island and Northshore are also considering changing to later start times for their teen students. The Bellevue District has already committed to starting later, with 8:30 am as an eventual start time goal.

It will be interesting to see if this program produces the desired results.

A teen’s internal clock differs from that of children and adults  when it comes to sleep. Puberty affects their sleep cycles by delaying the time they start feeling sleepy and awaken. They need around nine hours of sleep, but due to the interference of various factors they rarely sleep that long. Interference arises from homework, extracurricular and social activities, after school jobs and electronic technology like computers, tablets, smart phones, etc.

As a result tired, sleep deprived teens aren’t alert in class and find it difficult to concentrate. Research has demonstrated that sleep plays a critical role in memory consolidation and our ability to generate innovative solutions to complex problems.

Sleep deprivation also increases the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. A tired adolescent may be grumpy, moody, insensitive, angry and impulsive.

Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics made a national recommendation that middle and high schools delay start times to combat teen sleep deprivation. After months of discussion and planning meetings four Seattle area school districts: Seattle, Bellevue, Northshore and Mercer Island have committed to revising the start times for middle and high schools to start beginning in 2016. The districts are working out the details of implementation. It will be interesting to see how the students respond to these changes.