Parents might scoff at groggy high schoolers, but Wayzata school district officials are taking a serious look at the issue.
The district is considering shifting more elementary schoolers into early wake-up times to ease the problem of sleep-deprived teens.
High schoolers arrive at Wayzata High School by 7:30 a.m. Superintendent Chace Anderson thinks flipping elementary and high school start times — starting younger kids earlier and teens later — will help manage growth, maximize biological sleep times and optimize learning.
But his proposal has thrust the district into a larger debate over whether older or younger students would function better in the early morning hours, echoing conversations from districts around the country trying to balance optimal start times with tight transportation budgets.
Wayzata High School’s first bell is the earliest start time among its west metro neighbors. Eden Prairie High School starts at 7:50 a.m. and Edina High School starts at 8:25 a.m. The proposal Anderson originally backed would let high schoolers snooze for another 50 minutes but push most of the elementary schools to start at 7:30 a.m. That would let high schoolers sleep without requiring more buses.
“There’s a comfort level with a status quo, or what we know,” Anderson said. “A challenge comes any time there’s conversation about change.”
Other school districts considering swapping start times include Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose and St. Paul, which is testing a later-starting high school this year. Most proponents of the switch are citing the negative effects of sleep deprivation on teens — particularly anxiety, depression and a lessened ability to handle such complex tasks as driving — as well as their biological need to sleep later.
The Wayzata school board has delayed a decision until December, and Anderson is still refining the proposal.
“We hope to come up with a decision that’s really going to be a good balance for everyone,” said Linda Cohen, board chairwoman.
Some parents are hoping the board will hear their worries about changing the status quo.
“It’s a very solid proposal, if you care about high school students,” said Ethan Roberts, who has two young children in the district.
Shifting the problem?
There isn’t much research around earlier starts for elementary students, which has parents concerned. A 2014 University of Kentucky study found earlier start times could hurt younger students’ academic performance.
“These policy changes may simply be shifting the problem from adolescents to younger children, instead of eliminating it altogether,” the researchers wrote.
Two Wayzata elementary schools that have started at 7:45 a.m. for years haven’t seen academic performance suffer, Anderson said.
There are only so many options to manage growth and keep teens in bed longer. Adding more buses would mean a 25 percent hike to the district’s $4 million transportation budget, Anderson said. About 35 percent of the high school’s students ride the bus, he said.
Greenwood Elementary School in Plymouth is used to an early start; it’s been that way for as long as Brad Gustafson has been principal.
Gustafson said he had previously taught at a later-starting school, where kids would be exhausted by the end of the school day. At Greenwood, where the school day ends at 2:25 p.m., teachers can teach until the final bell.
“This is our normal,” Gustafson said.