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New School Bell Time in Seattle Is Already Paying Off

The schedule change benefits teens, tots — and maybe working parents, too

Malia Jacobson

Published on: February 22, 2019

High-school student

Seattle Public Schools’ massive schedule overhaul is paying off. In a new study published in Science Advances, researchers from the University of Washington reveal that the district’s recent move to later school bell times is having its intended effect — more sleep and better grades for local teens.

In a study involving wrist-worn sleep monitors, researchers found a median increase in 34 minutes of sleep each night. Later bell times didn’t nudge bedtimes later, as some families had feared; teens simply used their extra time in the morning to sleep.

A half-hour of extra sleep each night adds up to a couple of hours of extra shut-eye each week, enough to curb the sleep deprivation that can impact teens’ moods, driving safety and grades.

The study showed that students’ final grades increased by 4.5 percent after later start times took effect.

The study showed that students’ final grades increased by 4.5 percent after later start times took effect. The change is backed by robust science showing that teens routinely skimp on sleep; per the National Sleep Foundation, 87 percent of teens get less than the recommended 8.5 hours of sleep per night. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics implored school administrators nationwide to delay bell times for teens to combat chronic, widespread sleep deprivation.

The district took notice. By late 2015, the school board had approved a plan to move high school bell times nearly an hour later, making Seattle Public Schools one of the country’s largest districts to begin classes after 8:30 a.m. 

Making such a change for the state’s largest school district involved shuffling before- and after-school activities, bus schedules and child care for thousands of children. And because all 47,000 of the district’s students can’t begin school at exactly the same time (hello, school bus gridlock!), the later start time for older students necessitated earlier bell times for some of the district’s youngest pupils.

Under the new schedule, most elementary school students start earlier, before 8 a.m. That puts parents of younger kids in school drop-off lines as early as 7:35 a.m. (Yawn.)

Did the district simply swap one sleep-deprived subset for another? Lara Sirois of Seattle doesn’t think so. The mom of a kindergartener and a toddler says the earlier start time works well for her family, eliminating the need for before-school child care and allowing Sirois and her husband to get to work earlier.

“Both my husband and I work full-time and have a nearly 2-year-old son in daycare,” she says. “The early bell time means we don’t have to figure out before-school care or go in late to work.”

Plus, like lots of little kids, hers are usually more than ready to start their day by 7 a.m., she says. “Our kids are up early anyway, so might as well get them into school.” 

This squares with science. Adolescents’ circadian rhythms — biological patterns that govern sleeping, waking and mealtimes — naturally favor sleeping in, whereas many toddlers and young children wake up early, leaving hours to fill before a traditional 9 a.m. preschool or kindergarten start time.  

While no large-scale change is going to please everyone, this one seems to work for most, Sirois says. “We totally support the change. The kids all seem fine and I understand that teens are getting a bit more sleep. And for working parents, I think it’s helpful, too.”  

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