The Sleep Oasis

Maribel C. Ibrahim, Co-Founder and Operations Director
Start School Later, Inc.

If you are a California resident or a consumer of national news, you may have heard about a bill awaiting Governor Jerry Brown’s signature. The bill doesn’t deal with class sizes, instructional curricula, or testing standards, but it may provide an unprecedented way to deal with a longstanding and national-recognized health issue among students. It has to do with sleep.

Teen students undergo a biological, hormonal change that has been observed in other species – adolescent primates and rodents – who don’t use computers or cell phones. The shift in melatonin, the hormone that signals the onset of sleep, makes it harder for a typical teenager to fall asleep until after 11pm. In addition, because of the tremendous growth happening, these teens may also need more than eight hours of sleep – more like 8.5 to 10.5 hours of sleep each night.

Ironically, just as teens are shifting to a sleep cycle that is later and requires more hours of shut-eye, over the last 30 years, school systems across the country have made the start times for middle and high schools earlier, in direct conflict with the sleep needs of their students. Many school systems have a 7:30am or earlier start time, with school bus runs happening as early as 5:00am in some locations. Students are not able to get the restorative sleep they need, no matter how hard they try.

It gets worse. To a teen waking up at 6am, it really feels like 4am!

While these schedules were determined primarily due to consolidating bus runs, growing populations, and increasing transportation needs to larger regional schools, the unintended consequence is that school schedules by design create sleep deprivation in teens. The problem has become so pervasive that in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each issued statements that school start times for middle and high school students should not be earlier than 8:30am.

Sleep deprivation impacts every aspect of health. It’s not just the amount of sleep. When you sleep makes a difference too, with deep REM cycles restoring and repairing the body and mind. Sleep deprivation exacerbates weight gain, eating disorders, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, reduced immunity, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, mood swings, behavior problems, suicidal ideation, and damaging impacts on brain development.

It’s no comfort that students desiring a bit more shut-eye may elect to drive instead of riding the bus. With drowsy drivers on the road, we now have bigger problem affecting communities, not just students. Earlier start hours also mean earlier end of day release times: when schools let out during the unsupervised hours of 2–5pm, it’s no coincidence that this is also a time of spiked crime and drug use among teens.

Here is where the SB 328 Pupil Attendance: School Start Time bill, comes in. SB 328 would require middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30am and provides change management guidelines to make this happen. Given the clear need to adjust school start times for health and safety, why don’t local school districts just change the school start times on their own?

The fact is, some have tried. After reading the sleep research, Kenneth Dragseth, now-retired Superintendent of Edina (MN) Public Schools, made school start times later in his district in 1996. He then worked with Kyla Wahlstrom at the University of Minnesota to track the impact of shifting to a later school start time. As he related at a recent conference, “This was a no-brainer and was the best decision of my career.” And yet, he found it odd that media outlets were contacting the school about this landmark change. A neighboring district is still contesting the change, decades later, unable or unwilling to replicate Dragseth’s success.

Fairfax (VA) County Public Schools, the tenth largest school system in the country, successfully moved closer to an 8:30am start for their high school in 2015-2016, but it took a staggering 10 years to consider a modest change.

While more school systems are making schedule changes (see Success Stories on the Start School Later website), generations of students are languishing as scores of districts still fall well under the AAP/CDC guideline with no plans to change. School districts that are bogged down with vested interests, fear-based opposition, ignorance, and limited resources don’t have a chance. Meanwhile, students continue to pay the price for a health problem that has a solution.

This is why Governor Brown’s pen wields so much power and hope. SB 328 would allow school districts to make health and safety a priority instead of an ignored option. The bill provides for a generous three-year implementation plan and recommendations based on the lessons learned in Fairfax and Edina.

Governor Brown has recently signed other bills that require cities and water districts to set strict budgets. The state has had to intervene to set policies on water management as a matter of public safety (SB 606 and AB 1668). Now it’s time for California to set the standard for public health in schools across the state. The rest of the nation is watching and waiting for this watershed moment.

Editor’s Note: Start School Later offers this link for those who want to take action toward healthier and safer teens through later school start times.


What do you think?

  • What factors should Gov. Brown take into account when deciding whether to mandate that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30am? What would you urge him to do?
  • What have you seen happening in school districts where you are? What do you think they should do?

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Bio

Maribel Cabrera Ibrahim is Co-Founder and Operations Director for Start School Later, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to healthy, safe, equitable school hours. Maribel also works as a Facilities and Capital Project Manager for a large county library system, where she was recognized by her library peers with the 2015 Team Achievement Award for the Severna Park Library renovation.  At Start Schools Later, Maribel uses her professional experience in logistics, team building, and process development to manage the collaborative efforts of this growing national organization that has been in operation since 2011.

Disclosure: Families for Depression Awareness, which manages Care for Your Mind, is a Start School Later Coalition Partner.

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