Each school day, Madison Nodurft, a junior at Worcester’s Doherty Memorial High School, wakes up around 6:15 a.m. to begin her day, just a little more than an hour before her school’s 7:20 a.m. start time.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” she said. “Especially after three years of it, you eventually adapt.”
A growing scientific consensus, however, says that Madison, along with the thousands of other teenagers in the region who also have to awake at the crack of dawn because of their school’s early start time, may be sacrificing their cognitive abilities and emotional health as a consequence.
While many school officials in the state have long considered those potentially ill effects, dozens of school districts across the state, including Worcester and a few other Central Massachusetts school systems, are now actually doing something about it. A few of those towns have already moved back their high school start times in the past few years; the rest are either planning imminent schedule changes or at least seriously considering them.
In addition, lawmakers have filed a handful of bills this legislative session that propose forming study committees to further investigate the issue and report back to the Legislature with recommendations.
“There’s huge interest across the state, in part because of the 20-plus years of scientific data that is so compelling,” said Mary Hamaker of Southboro, who started the Massachusetts chapter of Start School Later three years ago. “We’re making our kids sick.”
Scientific research has shown that the deepest, “most restorative” sleep for teenagers occurs later in the night, right before they wake up in the morning, said Dr. Stephen Summers, a sleep specialist at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.
“There’s a wealth of data that suggests even a small increase in sleep time is helpful” for young minds, he said, adding studies have linked extra sleep to improved academic performance, school attendance, behavior and even safer driving.
Those benefits are at least enough to have convinced many districts in the state to go through what is often a painstaking process of adjusting school schedules to allow high school students an extra half-hour or more in the morning. In recent years, high schools in Easton, Canton and Hanover have moved back their start times, and this coming year, Ashland High, Concord-Carlisle and Monomoy Regional will do the same.
Many other high schools are still planning schedule changes, including Westboro High, which is slated to move its start time from 7:30 to 8:10 a.m. for the 2018-19 school year. The recommendation to do so was made by a special committee of school officials and school staff that have been investigating the concept for the past two years.
“It hinges on two things: it’s busing, and what (side of the school day) you’re pressing on,” said Westboro superintendent and committee co-chairwoman Amber Bock, who explained moving the morning start time means the afternoon release has to be delayed as a result. The solution the committee came up with, she added – flipping the district’s middle school and high school schedules with its fourth- through sixth-grade school’s schedule – has its drawbacks and is still not preferred by everyone in town, “but for us, it’s workable.”
Ms. Bock also admitted Westboro’s scheduling dilemma was a little more manageable than it is in other districts such as neighboring Northboro-Southboro, which has also been exploring a similar school day shift for Algonquin High but run into problems because of the two towns’ more complicated busing schedule. Christine Johnson, Northboro-Southboro’s superintendent, said she and other school officials in the district over the past 2½ years have looked at around a dozen possible ways to make the transportation and other logistics work, but that “none of them provided a realistic solution.”
“When you have a start time change, it’s not just about the high school – it’s about the whole community,” she said, adding the effects delaying Algonquin’s start time would have on other school schedules in the district, the impact shifting the high school day would have on after-school sports and other extracurricular activities, and the expensive cost of adding buses to make those scheduling changes work all have thwarted their planning so far. “We know it is something the research suggests is a good practice. But good practice isn’t always easily implemented.”
It also isn’t always what students want. Several Worcester high schoolers, including Madison, interviewed recently by the Telegram & Gazette, for instance, said they’d rather keep their schedule the way it is. The afternoons are already jam-packed, especially for student-athletes, she said – “there’s not enough time to decompress” – before subtracting another 40 minutes or so to tack to the beginning of the school day.
Her Doherty classmate, junior Philip Adarkwah, meanwhile, said the potential 8 a.m. start time floated by at least one School Committee member so far wouldn’t be worth that potential schedule shift – “it would have to be a lot later, like 9:30 a.m.,” he said, for students to see real benefits.
Worcester’s school administration, too, has said it would be difficult if not impossible, as well as potentially costly, to orchestrate all the scheduling changes necessary to let the city’s high schools open later in the morning. The district’s chief academic officer, Marco Rodrigues, who is leading a study panel tasked by School Committee’s Teaching, Learning and Student Supports Standing Committee to find a workaround that could be implemented as soon as this fall, recently said that planning is “still (in) the evaluative stages – we do not anticipate any changes for the coming year.”
School Committee members, however, so far have been undeterred in their quest to finally solve an issue they’ve been talking about for years.
“If it meant waiting another year to accomplish that, another year would be fine with me,” said committee member Brian O’Connell, who also chairs the standing committee. “But I don’t want to see this issue left to drift aimlessly year after year.”
Ms. Hamaker and Start School Later, meanwhile, hope to press the issue on the state level. While she is dubious about the usefulness of the study bills that have been filed – she feels ample scientific evidence already supports their cause – she said she is also in talks with a lawmaker to submit legislation that would establish a minimum high school start time in the state of 8:30 a.m., the time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Given that other states, including California and Rhode Island, are already weighing similar bills, she said she believes there is a “realistic” shot Massachusetts’ Legislature would consider the idea as well.
“We’re not telling schools when they have to operate,” she said, but like with other areas of education such as nutrition and attendance that the government already requires schools to meet a certain minimum standard for, “we’re saying it is past time to set the floor.”
Scott O’Connell can be reached at Scott.O’Connell@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottOConnellTG