Students in Mountain View's public schools could be getting an extra half-hour of shut-eye each morning, as school districts weigh pushing back start times to 8:30 a.m. or later.
Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill requiring middle schools to start class no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. by the 2022-23 school year. The Mountain View Whisman School District is going a step further, exploring the idea of bumping middle and even elementary school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later.
Mountain View-Los Altos High School District officials are looking to adopt the state-mandated start times along with a possible overhaul of its weekly schedule that could incorporate more block scheduling and double-period days.
Numerous studies and self-reporting surveys indicate that students, particularly teens, are sleeping fewer hours than what's recommended by pediatricians, typically around nine hours each night. The result is that kids are feeling sleepy or dozing off during the day, oversleeping on the weekend and consuming excessive caffeine to compensate, according to one report by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
School start times play a strong role: Kids don't tend to go to sleep earlier even when they have to get up at the crack of dawn -- adolescents generally struggle to fall asleep before 11 p.m. -- but later start times are effective in getting middle school and high school students to increase the number of hours slept, the report found.
Mountain View Whisman doesn't have to do much to comply with the new law. Elementary schools aren't included, and Crittenden and Graham middle schools would only need to inch the bell schedule forward by five and 10 minutes, respectively. But trustees generally agreed at the Oct. 24 school board meeting that it wasn't enough and asked staff to consider start times around 8:30 a.m., with some board members advocating for 8:45 a.m. or even 9:00 a.m.
Sleep benefits notwithstanding, it could have a big influence on student behavior. Board member Devon Conley said she has taught at schools that start at 7:45 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., and that the extra hour can make a big difference as the school day goes on.
"The late-start school was glorious as a teacher. I know it might not be practical for all of our families but it made a huge difference in the culture of the school," Conley said.
District data on "behavioral patterns," loosely defined by the number of disciplinary referrals, shows that students tend to have the most trouble in the early hours of the school day. Year-to-date data shows that more than 30% of the referrals -- 41 in total -- occurred between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., followed by 37% between 10 a.m. and noon.
Having an overarching policy on when the school day ought to start would be a big change of pace for Mountain View Whisman district schools, which start at staggered times ranging from 8 a.m. at Bubb, Huff and Vargas elementary schools to 8:35 a.m. at Theuerkauf, with several schools landing somewhere in between. Conley said her understanding is that was originally based on busing schedules, which shouldn't be the basis for start times.
"If we're expressly considering middle school and yet the basis for the elementary school was this arbitrary busing schedule, I'm interested in looking at both," she said.
The big question looming over the board meeting was what the high school district planned to do with its bell schedule and when it would be rolled out. Many families have kids attending schools in both districts, said board member Ellen Wheeler.
"I think it would be problematic to have some middle schools start at the same time as the high schools, just for getting kids to school," Wheeler said.
The initial plan was to alter start times beginning next school year, but board president Tamara Wilson said she would be willing to push it out one year in order to coordinate with the high schools.
First period at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools begins at 8:10 a.m. four days a week, with "zero" period beginning at 7:15 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. This is earlier than the neighboring Palo Alto Unified School District, where Gunn High School starts classes at 8:25 a.m. and Palo Alto High School starts classes at 8:30 a.m. and 10:05 a.m. on alternating days.
A recent study commissioned by the high school district recommended delaying start times to 8:30 a.m. at the earliest -- a moot point, given that state lawmakers are making that the mandatory minimum, said Associate Superintendent Margarita Navarro at the Oct. 21 board meeting. But she added that the school district was already headed in that direction, following calls from parents and students for class to begin later in the morning.
"We've heard this in many of the board meetings in the past -- we really need to delay start times because of sleep and other wellness factors," she said. Students surveyed as part of the study overwhelmingly cited later start times as a top priority.
The study warned that while student wellness would likely improve, later start times can come with a host of challenges: exacerbating traffic congestion in the morning, worsening commute time for parents and squeezing available time for after-school athletics and extracurricular activities. Solutions cited in the study include encouraging more kids to walk and bike to school or take public transportation, and adding field lights that allow athletic activities to stretch into the evening hours.
The study surveyed thousands of students, teachers and parents in the district on scheduling questions unrelated to start times as well, particularly satisfaction with the bell schedule and whether students want more block schedules with double-period days. Among all three groups, the strongest support was in favor of expanding the number of double-period days beyond two days per week, while only 18% of students and parents and 13% of staff supported having all six or seven classes on single-period days.
Addressing student wellness, particularly sleep, came to the forefront in 2016 during the adoption of rules largely aimed at limiting the amount of homework in the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District. Many students surveyed during the process said burdensome homework loads were leading to sleep deprivation and other health problems including headaches, exhaustion, weight loss and stomach ailments.
The big question hanging over the conversation was timing, and whether the high school district could change start times and revamp the entire weekly schedule at the same time. Athletic and extracurricular activities would also need to be rearranged to accommodate the school day ending later, along with the planned installation of field lights that will allow students to practice and compete into the evening.
Superintendent Nellie Meyer said the district is optimistic about doing it all in one go.
"We have this big change moving to the late start, the shift happening with the lights, and the will, for years, to really look at something different and take a positive risk towards student success," she said. "Change is hard ... but if you move it all together and have a rationale this could be an opportunity to put in some of the things that have been desired for a long time."