Pushing for sleep: Clear Creek ISD school start times to remain unchanged

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Ben Bauers is one of thousands of Clear Creek ISD high school students who want a later start time. In late October, he went before the CCISD School Start Time Committee, a group the district organized to examine potentially changing school start times, and said high schoolers’ sleep needs are not being met.

Bauers said a later start time for high schools in the district, which start at 7:10 a.m., would lead to increased performance in academics, athletics and other areas, which Bauers said is subjectively important. He quickly corrected himself and said it is objectively important.

“Sorry, I didn’t get much sleep,” he offered as an excuse.

Bauers is not alone; dozens of other students, parents and even doctors have been advocating for later high school start times stretching back years.

However, advocates will have to wait a bit longer. The CCISD board of trustees Nov. 19 voted 4-3 to follow Superintendent Greg Smith’s recommendation to keep school start times the same and implement programs and initiatives to address problems sleep-deprived students have been reporting.


Advocates were disappointed with the vote but heartened to see three board members—Scott Bowen, Jennifer Broddle and Arturo Sanchez—vote against Smith’s recommendations in favor of a more ambitious solution.

“The later high school starts, the better for students,” said Yen Rabe, the president of the Houston-area chapter of Start School Later. “We are doing so much harm to our students.”

SLEEP PATTERNS


According to area doctors, modern research shows teenagers benefit from a school start time of 8:30 a.m. or later. However, in several districts in the Greater Houston area, high school typically starts around 7:30 a.m. Clear Creek ISD has one of the earliest start times at 7:10 a.m.

Once they hit puberty, teenagers’ sleep cycles change; their circadian rhythms, internal clocks that dictate in part when to go to sleep and wake up, begin cycling later. Teenagers also produce melatonin, a natural sleep-inducing chemical, later than preteens and fully grown adults, said Sara Nowakowski, an associate professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and a research health scientist at Michael E. DeBakery VA Medical Center.

As such, many teenagers are unable to fall asleep as early as they need to get the recommended full eight to 10 hours of sleep. Teenagers naturally want to go to sleep around midnight or 1 a.m., Texas Children’s Hospital Dr. Amee Patel said, but many have to wake at 6 a.m. or earlier to catch the school bus.

In a districtwide survey, students indicated they sleep an average of six hours and 44 minutes each night. About 62% of high school students reported feeling sleep deprived often or always.

Sleep deprivation can also be dangerous; Nowakowski, who is a CCISD resident, had a sleep deprivation-related brush with death in high school that pushed her to spend her life studying sleep, she said.

As a teenager, Nowakowski was driving to an early-morning summer job when she dozed off and crashed into a telephone pole. She was not harmed, but her car was destroyed. Other teenagers who fall asleep at the wheel, in part because of early school start times, are not so lucky, she said.

“Some kids are losing their lives,” Nowakowski said. “They’re risking it every day.”

Additionally, more sleep results in less depression, anxiety and risk taking among teenagers; they get better grades and do better at sports and other activities when well rested, Patel said.

In addition to being president of the Houston chapter of Start School Later—a national advocacy group for later high school start times that has the backing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other national health-related organizations—Rabe is also a teacher at Houston ISD. The district switched from unstandardized school start times to an 8:30 a.m. high school start time beginning in the 2018-19 school year, and the effect on students’ mental and physical well-being has been positive, she said.

“I see it’s better,” Rabe said.

CCISD resident David Brady, who has a child in high school, said he brought up his concerns about school start times years ago. His daughter has been showing signs of sleep deprivation for years, and it is time for change in a district that often tries to be progressive and exceptional, he said.

“Unfortunately, in this case we’re exceptional in a bad way,” he said.

District officials acknowledged the research about teenagers’ sleep patterns is sound, but officials and board members had other factors to consider when deciding the best school start times for students.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS


When it comes to changing school start times, bus routes are a significant challenge, said Steven Ebell, CCISD’s deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

There must be a 45-minute break between school start times at the elementary, intermediate and high school levels so there is enough time for the district’s 177 buses to pick up and drop off students before school. Additionally, intermediate schools must start last because many intermediate campuses have special programs, such as dual-language or gifted and talented programs, that start an hour before school begins and require special transportation, Ebell said.

If school start times were pushed back, it is likely elementary students would be the first to ride the bus each day. Considering elementary school students’ age and the fact they make up the biggest bulk of school bus riders, it is more likely they would accidentally cause delays that would affect intermediate and high school bus riders, Ebell said.

“The potential for having slowdowns and students missing the bus ... is pretty great if elementary starts first,” he said.

Like other Houston-area districts, CCISD is already struggling with transportation considering 16 bus driver positions have yet to be filled. Changing routes would further complicate matters, Ebell said.

As part of the board’s vote Nov. 18, the district will investigate how to improve its transportation department. The district will also explore flexible scheduling for students who need it, investigate how homework is assigned districtwide, launch a family health campaign to promote well-balanced living for students, and more.

Another challenge is practice schedules for sports, band and other extracurricular activities would have to be altered if high school start times were pushed back significantly.

“The fact that high school gets out right now at 2:30 does lend itself well to athletics to be able to practice after school,” Ebell said.

If high school started later, practices might be switched to before school, which would defeat the purpose of starting school later, he said.

Shari Sweeny, the vice president of the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and a parent of a senior student at Clear Lake High School, said after-school jobs are another concern.

“Many students must work after school, and an early end to their school day allows them several hours to work at their job. This could be the most important proponent for keeping the start time as it is,” she wrote in an email to Community Impact Newspaper.

Pushing high school start times back would likely require intermediate school start times to be pushed back as well. Resident Christine Parizo, whose oldest child is a seventh grader, said •this would leave him with less time to unwind, do homework or participate in extracurricular activities.

Altering high school start times would have a domino effect on working parents who use day care. If elementary school start times were pushed back to accommodate later start times for high schoolers, working parents might have to use early-morning child care, Parizo said.

“There’s multiple issues at play that, to do this right, have to be thoughtfully considered,” Ebell said.

However, advocates said overcoming these challenges is worth the benefits a later high school start time would provide. CCISD could even look to other districts that have successfully changed school start times and follow their example, advocates said.

“Shouldn’t schools’ priority be about student health, academics and safety?” Rabe said. “We need to find a solution.”

Despite their votes, board members agreed the issue is not over and start times could be changed later on.

“The conversation doesn’t stop here today,” board President Laura DuPont said.
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By Jake Magee

Jake Magee has been a print journalist for a few years, covering topics such as city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be an editor with Community Impact. In his free time, Magee enjoys playing video games, jamming on the drums and bass, longboarding and petting his cat.

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