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Let ‘em sleep!

Adolescent students need to catch more ZZZs so they can make more As.

This is the reason the Durham Public Schools Board of Education is heeding the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and recently voted to delay DPS’s high school bell schedules.

There is a mountain of scientific research concluding that teenagers do not get the recommended amount of sleep for their optimal well-being. Additional evidence is accumulating that links later school start times with increased sleep for teenagers. In turn, school districts that have aligned school schedules with the sleep patterns of adolescents are seeing benefits to academic performance, physical and mental health, attendance, tardiness, safe driving, and overall student well-being. The DPS school board believes that this research is compelling and that it is imperative to modify our high school start times to capture these benefits.       

The DPS school board, the administration, and our community have been discussing this important public health issue for many years, leading to our November 2014 resolution that asked our administration to develop bell schedule options where middle and high schools would not start their day before 8:00 a.m. We were presented with three options, each of which had its benefits and drawbacks. We considered community input, bell schedule survey results, family schedules, work schedules, child care needs, after-school athletics and activities, and the mounting research on this topic.

We also considered the costs of operating our school bus system. Our buses make trips for multiple schools; changes to one school’s schedule affect when buses will arrive at another school. Also, school districts such as DPS receive state transportation funding based on how efficiently we operate our system. The more buses we add, the further we would have to stretch that funding.

With careful consideration of these many factors, the board unanimously approved a new bell schedule that improves our start times for high schools while not increasing spending on school buses. A year from now, in 2016-17, high schools will begin at 9 a.m., middle schools at 7:30 a.m., and elementary schools on a tiered schedule between 7:45 and 9:15 a.m. 

We understand that this change will have impacts that will be felt by students, families, school staff, and school programs. For each individual situation, some will find the new schedule as preferable and others as more difficult. The Board considered hundreds of comments, pro and con, and ultimately based its decision on what we believe is in the best interest for the most students and the most schools over the long term. It is not yet a perfect solution; our middle schools are still opening earlier than our Board prefers. But it is a positive step and moves our high schools forward within existing resource limitations. 

School districts surrounding us and across the nation are already adopting later bell schedules for teens. Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, and Guilford County schools are among the districts that have already made this change. These districts have been able to better meet students’ sleep needs without upending sports, family schedules, teen employment, and child care. 

Better-rested adolescents will make for healthier and more academically successful students.

Let ‘em sleep!  

Heidi Carter

Heidi Carter is the chair of the Durham Board of Education. She has served on the board since 2004.