Boulder Valley School District

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Robbyn Fernandez

Assistant Superintendent, East

Rob Price

Assistant Superintendent, Operations

Frequently Asked Questions About the Equal School Day

We appreciate the feedback we received during the public comment period. During the month of March, we are working through the feedback and exploring potential solutions. Below are some answers to some of the frequently asked questions we heard.

What does sleep research say about elementary school start times?

An adequate amount of quality sleep is important for health and learning for all students. BVSD has examined the existing research and published expert opinions related to school start times at all levels. The research is clear on the detrimental effects of insufficient and mis-timed sleep and too early start times on adolescents. Beginning in the 2019/20 school year, BVSD changed high school bell times in response to copious research about the shift in sleep patterns during adolescence. Start times were shifted to 8:30 a.m., in line with the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that secondary schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. A study of the impact of a pilot adjustment of start times at Fairview and Boulder high schools from 7:30 a.m. - 8 a.m. revealed students got more sleep, tardies went down, and in some cases GPA increased (Meltzer, 2017, Wahlstrom, 2014).  When BVSD made the change for high school start times, staff committed to evaluating the bell schedules for other levels as well and bringing any recommendations back to the Board of Education.

Research related to how elementary school start times affect student learning is less abundant and less consistently conclusive than what exists for adolescents. Studies can be found to both support and oppose the proposed schedule change for elementary school students. However, evidence exists that suggests the Equal School Day bell schedule is not detrimental and may actually benefit learning. The benefits of additional instructional time for students and professional learning time for teachers are worth making the change. We also know that all students and family schedules are unique and may not align with research findings.  

The “Sweet Spot” for Elementary Learning

Multiple experts and research studies suggest that pre-adolescent students have more energy and focus earlier in the morning, and therefore AM hours may be more productive for learning. Dr. Judith Owens, Director, Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders, Boston Children’s Hospital and Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School contends that 7:30 - 9 a.m. is the sweet spot for elementary school start time. According to Dr. Owens, pre-adolescents are morning “larks” versus adolescents being evening “owls” (Owens via RTSD, 2019). Dr. Eric Zhou, an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a staff psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, proposes that a 7:30 - 8 a.m. start time is more aligned with the circadian rhythm of elementary age students (Rath, 2018). Dr. David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, contends that the peak period for degree of focus in pre- and post-adolescent cognitive cycles is from 7 a.m. to noon (Sousa, 2011). 

The opinions of experts that earlier is better for elementary age students is supported by the experience of educators in the field. BVSD educators consistently report that energy levels and ability to focus for elementary students are higher in the morning and tend to drop off in the afternoon. This is aligned with feedback from educators in districts that have moved elementary start times earlier. In Minneapolis, educators noted many benefits of a move to a 7:40 a.m. start, including increased energy and focus throughout the day, increased learning, fewer before school transitions, fewer behavior problems, and benefits especially for students with ADHD. (Wahlstrom, 1998). That experience is echoed by teachers in the Monomoy Regional School District (MA) (Rath, 2018). Prior to a shift to earlier elementary start times in Monomoy, teachers indicated students were academically exhausted by 2:30 p.m. After the change from 8:55 a.m. to 7:45 a.m., the superintendent cited a 45% decrease in discipline referrals, a significant decrease in nurse referrals, an increase in academic performance and decreased early dismissals (Carpenter, n.d.)

Academic and Behavioral Outcomes of Earlier Start Times

Research related to how elementary school start times affect student learning has mixed results. Studies can be found to both support and oppose the proposed schedule change for elementary school students related to academic performance. A 2015 study examining the association between elementary school start time and students’ academic achievement in mathematics and reading in Wayzata Public Schools (MN) found “The association between school start time and elementary students’ academic achievement is small to non-existent, particularly when controlling for student demographic characteristics, grade, and school.” (Dupuis, 2015). 

A 1998 study (Epstein) compared 5th graders in Israel who started school at 7:10 a.m. versus 8 a.m. The earlier group complained more about fatigue and sleepiness and attention and concentration difficulties at school. The Equal School Day proposed start time is closer to the latter group.

Two often-cited studies from Kentucky correlate earlier start times with lower academic performance and behavior problems in K-6th graders. One study (Keller, et al, 2015) found a correlation between slightly lower test scores (1% to 5%, depending on the test subject) and elementary school start times earlier than 7:30 a.m. Another study by Keller (2017) found somewhat higher rates of discipline problems in K-6 schools. Dr. Owens has offered the following response to the Keller work:

  • The study did not assess sleep duration for any of the subjects. 

  • Kentucky has two time zones, and the range of sunrise time spans 1 hour 15 minutes, which is not accounted for in the data analysis regarding school start time. 

  • 6th grade students are often on the verge of puberty which makes them more like adolescents than young children in terms of their sleep habits and preferences. 

  • 6th graders, on the cusp of puberty, and the accompanying circadian shift, comprise half of the behavior incidents in the state report, so its findings don’t strictly apply to K-5 schools.

Dr. Lisa Meltzer of National Jewish Health in Denver also suggests the results of the 2015 Keller study should be interpreted cautiously. Dr. Meltzer points out the study did not consider other factors such as bedtime, wake time, sleep duration, extracurricular activities, or technology use/presence. Meltzer also notes that correlation does not equal causation (Meltzer, 2017). 

It is also worth noting that the authors of both Kentucky studies acknowledge, “The current study is also limited by its cross-sectional design and data from only one state. Although we controlled for a number of potential confounding factors, including the racial composition of the schools and teacher–student ratio, we cannot infer that early school start times were the cause of school performance measures.”  (Keller et al., 2015 p.243). 


Sleep Duration and Timing for Elementary Students

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that elementary age students (6-12 yrs) get 9-12 hours of sleep per night (Jenco, 2016). Research suggests that earlier school start times may not necessarily reduce the amount of sleep children get and that children of this age may be able to adjust their bedtimes in response to earlier school start times to get the needed amount of sleep (Appleman, 2015). Dr. Owens agrees, noting that during adolescence, circadian rhythms shift approximately two hours later and cannot be behaviorally altered. However, through excellent sleep hygiene, pre-adolescent circadian rhythms can be shifted, so children can continue to get the 9-12 hours they need for good health (Owens, 2016; Owens, 2019). This point is acknowledged by the authors of the study of school start times in Kentucky that correlates school start times with behavior and test scores who state, “On the one hand, elementary school children are not experiencing the puberty-related phase shift in sleep–wake regulation. Therefore, earlier bedtimes and improved sleep hygiene may more readily prevent sleep deprivation in this student group.” (Keller et al., 2015, pg. 242).

Sources cited

Appleman ER, Stavitsky Gilbert K, Au R. 2015. School start time changes and sleep patterns in  elementary school students. Sleep Health. 1(2):109-114.

Carpenter, S. (n.d.)  The Debate Over Later School Start Times, Monomoy Regional School District.

Dupuis, D. N. (2015). The Association Between Elementary School Start Time and Students’ Academic Achievement in Wayzata Public Schools.

Epstein, R., Chillag, N., & Lavie, P. (1998). Starting times of school: effects on daytime functioning of fifth-grade children in IsraelSleep21(3), 250-257.

Jenco, M., (June 13, 2016) AAP endorses new recommendations on sleep times. AAP News, Retrieved February 22, 2021. 

Keller, P. S., Smith, O. A., Gilbert, L. R., Bi, S., Haak, E. A., & Buckhalt, J. A. (2015). Earlier school start times as a risk factor for poor school performance: An examination of public elementary schools in the commonwealth of Kentucky. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 236.

Keller, P. S., Gilbert, L. R., Haak, E. A., Bi, S., & Smith, O. A. (2017). Earlier school start times are associated with higher rates of behavioral problems in elementary schools. Sleep health, 3(2), 113-118.

Meltzer, L. J., (2017). The science behind changing school start times

Owens, J. (2016) The ABCs of ZZZs: The Impact of Sleep on Student Health and Performance

Owens, J. (April 2, 2019) The Science of Sleep and School Start Times, Radnor Township School District. [video] YouTube https://youtu.be/E48lxpC7nY4?t=2071

Rath, A. (Feb. 1, 2018) What Earlier School Start Times Mean for Young Brains, WGBH News, Boston. 

Sousa, D. A. (2016). How the brain learns. Corwin Press.

Wahlstrom, K. (1988), Elementary Feedback on Changed Start Times, Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, 1998.

Wahlstrom, K., Dretzke, B., Gordon, M., Peterson, K., Edwards, K., & Gdula, J. (2014). Examining the Impact of Later School Start Times on the Health and Academic Performance of High School Students: A Multi-Site Study. Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. St Paul, MN: University of Minnesota.

Additional reading

Earlier School Start Times for Elementary School Students: When school start time advocacy collides with science

This blog post by Joseph A. Buckhalt, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at Auburn University, provides commentary on some of the sources cited above including those by Keller et al., and Dupuis.


Why can’t the elementary school school day be 8 a.m. - 3 p.m.?

The primary reasons for the bell time changes, including the late start on Wednesday, are to provide equal instructional time for students and time for our educators to collaborate and continuously improve for the benefit of our students. The new schedule will be supported with a two-tier transportation routing scenario with buses transporting elementary students first then making a second trip for secondary students. BVSD high schools and middle schools start at 8:30 a.m. and 8:40 a.m. respectively. Bus drivers need 45 minutes after dropping off elementary students to pick up secondary students and deliver them to schools. The 7:45 a.m. start allows for the necessary time between the elementary and secondary bus tiers. 

Shifting the entire schedule back 15 minutes to provide an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. day for elementary students would supplant the work that was done to set the current high school start/end times. 


Can't each school decide their own start/end time for the standard-length day?

When schools have the same length of day, we are able to align bell times to use district resources more efficiently. For example, we have many specialists (specials teachers, speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, counselors, etc.) that are assigned to multiple schools. Aligning bell times helps the district schedule them more effectively. 

The same is true for transportation and our Transportation Department has been tasked with developing a bus plan to support the Equal School Day that is cost neutral. The proposed two-tier bus schedule allows buses to service more than one school. Exceptions to bell times take a bus off a service tier, reducing the number of schools a driver services and requiring additional routes. For example, buses serving an elementary school on an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule would not be able to also serve the secondary school tier of the bus schedule at 8:30 a.m. Additional routes cost additional money which could be spent in classrooms instead. It is especially important that Special Education buses also get to service more than one school because this is our most expensive type of busing. In addition, BVSD is currently experiencing a severe bus driver shortage. We don't have enough staff for a driver to service just one school and aren’t able to hire additional drivers because they simply are not available. Putting more buses/routes on the road also increases the environmental impact and doesn’t align with the district's sustainability goals.


Why now? This is more disruption on top of a very disruptive year. 

Even before the pandemic, BVSD had some of the largest achievement gaps in the state. COVID has only increased those gaps. All students have likely experienced some learning loss over the past year. Additionally, social emotional needs are even greater now. With more time in the day, additional attention can be given to supporting students' needs. We simply can't go back to the way we were pre-pandemic.

 

How will you encourage children and families to bike and walk to school with the earlier start times? It will be dark and cold. 

We understand that there may be changes in family commuting habits that come with the increased instructional time and earlier start. We have examples here in the district that show earlier start times don’t necessarily reduce biking and walking. Crest View Elementary and Superior Elementary, which start at 7:50 a.m. and 7:54 a.m. respectively, both have above average participation in biking to school. BVSD’s Safe Routes to School team is eager to work with schools to support families with biking and walking. 

The latest sunrise in Boulder County is 7:21 a.m. Civil twilight occurs for approximately 30 minutes prior to sunrise when the sun is just below the horizon. During this time, there is enough natural light to conduct most outdoor activities. We do naturally see biking and walking decline at all schools in the colder months. 


Won’t tardies increase with earlier start times?

Tardy data from the 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20 (through Mar. 1) school years show that BVSD elementary schools with start times before 8 a.m. have the lowest numbers of tardies/student.


Why was a late start on Wednesday mornings chosen for Professional Learning Time (PLT)? 

We know that the best teachers are continual learners and giving teachers time to improve their skills and collaborate with their colleagues about student progress will only help students. A number of schools at all levels in BVSD  already have this in their schedules and see the benefit of this weekly time for teachers. It is unfair to teachers that some get this time and some do not. This time will be even more important as we get into the work of the strategic plan and make up for learning lost due to the pandemic. Setting aside time each week for PLT is common among other Front Range school districts, including Littleton, Thompson Valley, and Adams 12 among others. 

A late start on Wednesday morning was recommended by the steering committee for PLT time. BVSD schools that use a late start on Wednesday report that it works well. However, we have  heard that the late start in the middle of the week is disruptive to families. This is something we are looking at as we consider the feedback we have received on the new schedule.