Students at Littleton Public Schools should be able to rest a little easier this fall, after the district approved a plan to juggle what time of day different grade levels start in the morning, a move officials say more closely aligns with how kids are wired to sleep.
Starting in August, high school and middle school students will go in roughly an hour later than they currently do, while elementary school students will go in earlier.
The changes follow similar moves by a number of districts in the state and nationwide, guided by research that says teenagers' natural sleep cycle means they perform better if allowed to fall asleep later and get up later, while little kids are already bouncing off the walls by the time the sun comes up.
“We cannot refute the need to do what's right by our adolescent kids by letting them stay in bed longer in the morning,” said LPS Superintendent Brian Ewert. “We're not trying to make the argument that kids will get more sleep — the research is clear that kids need sleep at a particular time, after 11 p.m. all the way to almost 9 in the morning. It's been replicated multiple times that when adolescents sleep makes a difference in their behavior, mental health and ability to learn.”
Currently, Littleton's three high schools start at 7:20 a.m. and are done by 2:20 in the afternoon. Starting this fall, they'll start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 3:31 p.m.
“Starting high school as early as we do currently is really something of an urban phenomenon, driven by the demands of the transportation system,” Ewert said. “Most rural schools don't start that early.”
Ewert said there are only so many buses and drivers to go around in the district, and rural districts often have the luxury of delivering kids to one or two campuses, rather than the numerous schools of LPS.
Sleeping on it
District officials arrived at the decision after holding dozens of forums with parents and teachers, according to a press release, as well as a pair of surveys that showed broad support for the changes. The release lists a lengthy bibliography of studies backing up the decision.
Sleeping later has myriad benefits, according to a document published by the district and developed with assistance from Dr. Lisa Meltzer, a sleep expert at National Jewish Health in Denver.
Teens have a need for eight to 10 hours of sleep a night, the document says, though nearly three-quarters get less than eight.
The document lists a number of dire consequences of inadequate sleep among adolescents, including increases in inattention, impulsivity and risk-taking behaviors, as well as greater risk of feelings of depression and suicidal ideation. Lost sleep coincides with an increase in car crashes, obesity and heart disease, it says, and impacts academic performance.
Teens' brain chemistry means they can't easily fall asleep earlier, the document says, and it isn't until the final hours of the early morning that teens' brains go into “deep sleep” mode.
“This is not coddling, but using developmentally appropriate expectations to help adolescents succeed,” the document reads in part.
The changes could have big impacts on school athletics, with sports practices and games all pushed later in the afternoon, and in some cases well after dark, said Brock Becker, Heritage High School's athletic director and assistant principal.
“It's a scheduling challenge for sure,” Becker said. “Trying to fit in our lower-level teams and varsity programs when everything's pushed back an hour will be tough to figure out.”
LPS only has one lighted stadium, at Littleton High School, and ordinances require that the stadium quiet down by 10 p.m. and have lights out by 10:30.
“When daylight is at a premium, you can't work around that,” Becker said. “We're looking at how we'll get enough lower-level baseball games in.”
Still, Becker said he sees the change to later start times as a net positive.
“Student athletes are out so late anyway,” Becker said. “If a basketball game ends by 9 p.m., those players are going home and trying to come down after the intensity of a game and be back here by 6:30 in the morning. It's tough on them, so we're excited to see what this has to offer.”
Not everyone's convinced. Arapahoe High School sophomore Rebekah Heath said the change will cut into her golf time, and mean changes to her speech and debate schedule.
“My golf is going to be screwed up,” Heath said. “Our practice times will be shorter, and I suspect we'll miss more school.”
Heath said her speech and debate team may move their practices to before school and meet more days a week.
“I don't mind waking up early,” Heath said. “It gives me more time to do stuff after school when it's still light out. I actually wake up at 4:45 every morning because I have a before-school church class. I've never struggled to stay awake.”
Heath's mom Jean Baker, who has five kids enrolled at LPS from preschool to high school, said she supports the change.
“I can see the whole perspective for what it's like for a high school kid,” Baker said. “The fundamental concept, that teens need later sleep, makes sense. You have to shift and reconfigure. Otherwise it's just too early for high school kids to get up and function.”
Elementary students will start their days earlier, with start times being bumped back from as late as 9:06 a.m. to as early as 7:50.
The change makes sense given the nature of younger kids, said Runyon Elementary School third-grade teacher Leslie Csikos.
“Our kids go to bed the earliest, and they're more raring to go first thing,” Csikos said. “I think this will be great.”
The change will likely mean fewer before-school activities, said fellow Runyon third-grade teacher Carol Zimmerman, but will likely work out in kids' favor.
“It'll be fun to try something new,” Zimmerman said. “We never want to make the kids an experiment, and that's not the purpose of this. We feel pretty confident this will be beneficial.”
Zimmerman said the new schedule could prove challenging for parents juggling day care times and commutes, but she feels confident there's enough time to sort that all out before the changes take place in August.
Both Csikos and Zimmerman said the change is beneficial for them personally, as they'll have more after-school time to catch up on grading papers or have a life outside of school.
Ewert said he feels Littleton is at the vanguard of a growing movement toward later start times for older students, backed by hard-to-dispel science.
“Some people will call this an inconvenience, irritation or even a hardship,” Ewert said. “Given all that, I'm thoroughly convinced the school board acted in a courageous way. I think it's just the right thing to do.”