N.H. Towns Make High School Start Later, But Not Everyone is Happy About It

Dec 12, 2016

Next school year, some high school students on the Seacoast will be able to hit the snooze button a few more times. The Oyster River and Portsmouth School Districts recently voted to move the start of their school days to 8:15 and 8:30, respectively. Research shows the change can help students get more sleep, but the decision was not without controversy.

“Get your clothes on, ok? Get dressed. Then come on down and meet me for breakfast.”

It’s 6:30 a.m. at the MacManes household in Durham, and that means it’s time to get ready for school.

Katie MacManes has five children to send on their way this morning – two high schoolers, one middle schooler and two elementary schoolers.

“It’s almost 7, so that means you need to be eating breakfast, right?”

“I got my bowl out!”

About the time her youngest children are sitting down at the kitchen table to eat their cereal, the three oldest are heading out the door.

“Alright have a good day!”

11th grader Lauren MacManes drives her younger siblings Owen and Kaila to school with her.

This morning it’s below freezing. As Owen scrapes the windshield, Lauren puts the heat on full blast.

She says getting going in the mornings can be tough. Some days they go to a Dunkin Donuts for coffee before school.

“I don’t know. It’s just like, anything that can get me more sleep at this point, is like, what I’m for.”

The sun is just coming over the trees as we pull out of the driveway. A few minutes later, we’re in the Oyster River high school parking lot -- at about 7:20. Lauren is off to Literature class; Owen has a presentation on globalization to deliver.

Next year this routine will probably look much the same, only the MacManes will arrive at school closer to 8 a.m. thanks to a recent decision by the Oyster River School Board.

It’s only 45 minutes later, but according to Erin Sharp, an associate professor of human development and family studies at UNH, those 45 minutes can make a big difference for students.

“There’s nothing but overwhelming support that this is good educational policy.”

Sharp says among the many changes that adolescents go through, is a major one to their sleep schedule. The technical term is delayed phase preference -- basically it means teens’ brains just want to go to sleep later and wake up later than the rest of us.

“For an adult, the typical sleep cycle is about 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. And for  adolescents, it actually shifts so that on average the sleep pattern is to fall asleep about midnight and wake up about 9 a.m.”

It may come as no surprise that teenagers like to sleep in later, but meanwhile school start times usually move in the opposite direction – the older you are, the earlier you have to show up for class.

A landmark 2014 study found that when start times are pushed later, most students do get more sleep.

It also found that that extra sleep can bring a variety of positive changes along with it – from a boost in students’ academic performance to lower levels of depression, even fewer early morning car accidents involving teen drivers.

This research has led dozens of other school districts around the country to change their start times.

Still, at Oyster River, not everyone was thrilled with the idea.

“I don’t think the start time later is going to change anything – for my kids it’s going to make it worse.”

Barbara Myaucher was one of many parents who spoke against the change at school board meetings.

“They’re going to be up later doing homework; it’s going to set everything back that 45 minutes.”

The issue for many wasn’t so much about a new start time, but about how a new end time would affect students and families.

There were concerns about afternoon child care for younger students, or that it would cut into the amount of family time.

Some argued that the extra costs associated with the change – about 75,000 dollars for more buses – would be money better spent elsewhere.

Students debated the issue, too. Many liked the idea of extra sleep, but others like Senior Troy LaPolice had concerns about how it would affect after school activities like sports.

“I don’t necessarily think we can discount sports as something that’s not necessarily useful because I think people learn valuable experiences from being on the field, being in the workplace, doing things outside of school as well.”

Ultimately, the Oyster River School Board sided with the research on later start times, and voted 8-1 to approve the change.

The vote makes them, along with the Portsmouth school district, among the first in the state to push their start time later.

Superintendent Jim Morse says he’s hoping the change will make school less stressful for students.

“That’s the big issue that we’ve been facing in Oyster River. We have kids who do extremely well whatever measure we give them, but we’re looking for ways to still be a high achieving school system and concurrently not have our children go through so much stress.”

We’ll check back in with the MacManes household next year to see if it’s working.