How would California students, families deal with later school start times?

Lynda Williams noticed her 15-year-old son was “like a zombie” when ?he started his school day at ?7:35 a.m. as a freshman at Analy High School in Sebastopol last school year. He would wake up just after 6 a.m., drag himself to the shower, wolf down breakfast and yawn as he hopped into his mom’s car for a ride to school.

It was one of the reasons he transferred for his sophomore year to Technology High School in Rohnert Park, where the school day starts at 8 a.m.

“I think sleeping even a half-hour more helps you focus during class,” said her son, William Duncan.

The Sebastopol mother-son pair support SB 328, a bill that would require middle and high schools in California to begin the school day no earlier than 8:30 a.m., in light of years of research showing adolescents need more sleep. State lawmakers on Aug. 31 passed the legislation, which now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

Wednesday was Duncan’s first day at Technology High, and his mother said the extra time in the morning made a difference.

“He’s not as grumpy,” she said, chuckling.

While sleep advocates consider the bill a win for adolescents who need more sleep to properly grow and function, several groups - including the California Teachers Association - opposed it, citing local control issues.

“What’s good for somewhere else in California may not be good for our district,” said Laurie Fong, a Santa Rosa school board member.

Kelly McMahon, an eighth-grade teacher at Herbert Slater Middle School and parent to a Cardinal Newman High School student, worries later school start times could affect after-school routines - extra-curricular activities, dinner, homework and family time.

“If things are pushed back even more, I just don’t know how that’s going to work with families in the evening,” she said.

Isabel Hawley, a single mom, opposed the bill, saying it’ll be inconvenient for working parents like herself. Her 15-year-old son attends Piner High School in northwest Santa Rosa, where classes begin at 7:45 a.m.

“Granted, I’d like to sleep, too,” said Hawkley, 47. “But we’re trying to get these kids ready for the real world.”

If the bill is signed into law, about three-quarters of the state’s middle and high schools would have to adjust their schedules by July 2021, according to a legislative analysis.

Districts would have to figure out logistics for bus schedules and after-school activities, including athletic events.

About 17 of the county’s ?40 school districts are serviced by the West County Transportation Agency, including Santa Rosa City Schools - Sonoma County’s largest district with about 16,000 students. Santa Rosa board member Frank Pugh said later start times could affect negotiations with bus services.

The bill excludes rural districts, and according to the California constitution the state is required to reimburse local agencies and school districts for certain costs mandated by the state.

In the Santa Rosa district, eight of its secondary sites have agreements with the teachers union for bell schedules that would need to be renegotiated to accommodate an 8:30 a.m. start time, according to Santa Rosa Teachers Association president Will Lyon.

That includes Montgomery High School, which begins school at 8 a.m. and hasn’t changed its bell schedule since 1996. Music teacher and SRTA representative Erik Ohlson chairs the bell schedule committee formed about two years ago to address changing needs from parents, students and teachers over the past two decades.

“The bell schedule is an integral part of how school functions,” he said.

Pending the governor’s signature, Ohlson said the process to change the school’s bell schedule, including a teacher vote and negotiations, could kick off in the near future. Montgomery students could have an 8:30 a.m. school start time as early as fall 2019.

The bill wouldn’t mandate a minimum start time for zero period, or elective classes that begin before school. Ohlson teaches a zero period advanced band class at Montgomery from 7 to 7:55 a.m. He noticed it’s common in zero period for teens to be tardy or absent.

“Teenagers are eating and growing and working at such an extreme rate, that to deprive them of sleep isn’t helping,” he said.

However, Fong said sleep research is “only a piece of it” when it comes to determining school start times, which she believes should be a local decision instead of state-mandated. There are several moving parts in making scheduling decisions, including the strain a later schedule may put on a family. For example, some families may need their older kids to care for younger siblings.

“In terms of the best start times … those cannot be figured out until everyone’s at the table,” she said.

It’s a conversation the district should have, she argued.

“In our day and age - a ?21st century education - we are serving so many different needs. Who says school needs to be ?8 to 3?” said Fong, who served as Montgomery’s principal for 10 years. “It’s a system that has been around since the early 1900s.”

Experts maintain the need for adolescent sleep is universal. Matthew Walker, neuroscience and psychology professor at UC Berkeley and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, wrote a letter to state lawmakers in support of the bill.

“Put simply, sleep is a non-?negotiable biological necessity. Countless surveys now demonstrate that teens are among the most sleep-deprived age groups,” Walker wrote. “Early school start times are a chief cause of this problem, together with hectic schedules filled with after-school activities, homework hours and family obligations.”

One site that made the leap from an 8 a.m. start time last school year to 9 a.m. this school year is the Hanna Boys Center, a teen residential treatment center and high school in Sonoma Valley.

Longtime social studies teacher Mario Alioto said he likes having extra time in the morning to collaborate with other teachers, and most of his students prefer the later start time.

“You don’t see as many boys coming in groggy or putting their heads down,” Alioto said.

The change was made as a result of National Sleep Foundation research, which found teens need 9.25 hours of sleep each night. Additionally, it found biological changes put most teens on a later bedtime and wake-up schedule than adults, and sleep deprivation can lead to numerous problems, including depression, impaired cognitive function, drowsy driving and stress.

While students who reside at the Hanna Boys Center are reportedly more alert in the classroom because of the new start time, they don’t have the same commute routines of public school students.

Ultimately, Technology High School sophomore Ethan Park said he supports a later school time because more sleep helps him focus. On Wednesday, students at his school get a “late day,” in which the school day begins at 9 a.m. instead of the usual 8 a.m.

“It helps because Wednesday is like the worst day of the week,” he said. “It’s much easier to absorb information when you’re more awake.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707 521-5216 or On Twitter?@susanmini.

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