Several Minnesota school districts are looking at pushing back their school start time, particularly for high school students, who gain the most from extra sleep.

Buffalo-Hanover-Mont­rose, Willmar and Wayzata are among the districts contemplating such a move, while St. Paul Public Schools recently decided to conduct a pilot project next school year at Johnson Senior High, which will start an hour later.

Minneapolis Public Schools just wrapped up exhaustive survey work to gauge parents' and students' thoughts on school start and dismissal times. The move also comes after the release of a definitive study on the benefits of starting school later.

"One thing that really struck me was the first time I heard one of the sleep researchers say that early start times can have harmful effects on students, particularly secondary students," said Pam Miller, Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose's director of teaching and learning. "Why on earth would we want to harm our students?"

Last March, researchers from the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) finally put to rest the long-standing question of whether later start times correlate to increased academic performance for high school students. The answer: It does.

Researchers analyzed data from more than 9,000 students at eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming and found that shifting the school day later in the morning resulted in a boost in attendance, test scores and grades in math, English, science and social studies.

Schools also saw a decrease in tardiness, substance abuse and symptoms of depression. Some even had a dramatic drop in teen car crashes.

Since the study's release, CAREI's director, Kyla Wahlstrom, said she's heard from schools across the country, many of which had previously been on the fence about whether to push back start and dismissal times.

"A lot of them had earlier said, 'Well, we really need to see if there is an academic benefit before we make any changes,' " she said. "And that's what that latest study provided — proof of those benefits."

Research is clear cut

One of the Minnesota school districts that reached out to Wahlstrom was Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose. After thoroughly examining the research, the district convened a task force last fall.

In March, the group recommended pushing back the high school start time to 8:30 a.m. and having the elementary schools start classes about 7:45 a.m. — about 45 minutes earlier than now.

Kyle Dinehart, a task force member and father of a first-grader at Montrose Elementary, said the group heard from all sides — from parents of high school students who worried pushing back start times would eat into extracurricular activities to parents of elementary students who didn't want their children standing at the bus stop in the dark.

In the end, though, task force members found the research so compelling, particularly regarding the benefits of later start times for high school students, they ultimately advised the district to consider effectively swapping the start times for the elementary schools and high school.

"The bottom line for me is I want what's best for the kids," Dinehart said. "And the research is just so cut and dry. Students do better when they get more sleep."

The task force's recommendation will go now to an administrative group to be further fleshed out before it is sent to the school board for a vote. If the school board votes to make a change, parents will have almost an entire year's notice.

"It's not as simple as just switching the time," Miller said. "It's a decision that affects everything — transportation, child care, parents' work schedules, extracurricular activities. We understand that."

A domino effect

Officials with both the Wayzata and Willmar school districts said the soonest they might change any start and dismissal times would be the 2016-17 school year. And before a decision is made, the community will have the chance to weigh in on any proposal that moves forward.

In Wayzata, what's driving the conversation is the construction of a high school addition that's set to open that fall.

"But we realize that even when you're only really talking about the high school schedule, it has a domino effect," said Amy Parnell, a district spokeswoman. "We want to talk through all the scenarios."

In 1996, Edina Public Schools became among the first school districts in the country to push back its high school start time in an effort to better sync up with students' normal sleep patterns. That district then experienced improved attendance, decreased tardiness and even students who were less depressed, according to the U's research.

The study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that high schools that begin as late as 8:55 a.m. have 66 percent of students getting eight or more hours of sleep on school nights, which is the recommended amount for high school students. Schools that begin at 7:30 a.m. have an average of only 34 percent of students obtaining eight or more hours of sleep on school nights.

The average start time for most high schools across the country is 7:59 a.m., according to the most recent federal statistics.

That is likely to change, however, as more districts consider pushing back the clock for high school students, who need to average between 8 ½ and 9 ½ hours of sleep a night, according the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has also endorsed later high school start times.

"It's pretty simple," Wahlstrom said. "When you get enough sleep, you just function better."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469