When Start School Later in Michigan faced unique hurdles in passing a statewide law, advocates pivoted to new strategies.

By Laura Humann

Most of us are aware of the fight to push high school start times later in the morning. While some districts have heeded our calls, even adjusting times just slightly in some cases, many others have refused. Fortunately, with laws in place in California and Florida, starting school later is now being taken more seriously.

Edina, Minn, was the first to move to later times in 1996. Back then, all advocates had was the ability to explain delayed phase shift, as well as some data on reduced car crashes. Today, more than 2,000 published articles support starting school later.

The importance of sleep is also better understood now. Before, the average layperson didn’t know what melatonin was; now it’s half an aisle at drugstores. So when you explain that hormonal changes in puberty also result in a delay in melatonin production, it makes sense.

We now have data showing that pushing times later not only impacts learning and test scores, but it is also linked to improvements in anxiety, depression, delinquency, risk of illness, obesity (and weight-loss responsiveness), diabetes/insulin resistance, attendance and graduation rates, and behavior problems including aggression. We even have data showing that it is financially beneficial for a community to do so over the long term, even if there are short-term costs.  

I have three daughters—ages 10, 12, and 13. Our high school starts at 7:15 am, and the bus rolls by at 6:40 am. This timing needs to change before my girls get to high school. One already has anxiety and depression, and I cannot ignore the data showing it worsens with sleep deprivation. I am compelled to push for change.

Our superintendent was new when I brought up the idea of later start times, and he responded that he felt start time change needed to happen at a state level. He said changing a single district would cause problems with sports schedules with adjacent districts. So I reached out to the national Start School Later organization, and I was connected with others to bring this to the Michigan State Capitol.

Michigan’s Unique Situation

The Michigan Start School Later team includes an academic neuroscientist who specializes in circadian rhythm biology, two sleep physicians, two psychologists, an education justice organizer, and an academic economist who specializes in education. We have all the knowledge and qualifications needed to put together fancy presentations. But we quickly found we don’t usually have to explain the science: Superintendents, coaches, legislators, and other key stakeholders already know that the science supports starting high school later.  

We thought we were making great progress toward a state law when we learned about the Headlee Amendment, a unique provision in our state constitution that says the Michigan State Congress cannot pass a law that may add to the state budget without voter approval. So we face a hurdle that California and Florida did not. While many districts can change without added cost, we’d have to prove it.

Instead, we pivoted to get the outcome we want—having high schools start later—without mandating it by law.

It means we are taking actions like creating a state-level position for someone who can guide districts that wish to change but face logistical or financial challenges. We are pushing for specific line items in the budget that can be used to offset costs for districts that cannot change without adding more bus routes. We will be presenting to superintendent groups and at the statewide school board member meeting, including providing examples of how they can be successful.

Common Objections to Starting School Later

We hear several common objections when we advocate for later school start times. If you’re a sleep health professional advocating locally, be prepared with responses to these concerns.

Objection: They say a proposal to change start times was already shot down because of blah, blah, blah. 

Response: Tell them that’s great, but what was a suggestion before is a solution now. The COVID lockdown taught us that educational formats can change drastically when needed. The pandemic also put students behind academically and increased their rates of anxiety and depression. Schools are now facing a staggering rate of absenteeism and lower graduation rates. Allowing teens to get more sleep can fix these problems in measurable ways for minimal cost.

Objection: Inevitably, someone will suggest that later times will get in the way of sports. Game times will be later, school schedules misaligned, shorter practices, less time for homework, etc.  

Response: These are all legitimate concerns that need to be acknowledged.

Remind opponents that we are not making the school day longer, just later and more in line with when teenagers are ready for sleep. The hours after dinner are the best time for homework, and the school bell change will allow them to spend more time in the restorative stages of sleep in the early morning hours. 

For student-athletes, the time for memory consolidation will be increased, helping them better retain the plays they learned the day before and the muscle memory from drills. So practices can be shorter and plays repeated less often before they are retained.

We have physicians who specialize in optimizing sleep for improved athletic performance, and trainers at the gym talk about getting more sleep to become healthier and improve endurance. Better sleep makes better athletes, and the schedules will work themselves out.

Objection: Transportation logistics (bus routes and timing) will be challenging.

Response: Because school start times are all over the board, there is no single answer. 

For districts that start high school early and elementary at 9 am or later, what has worked is to flip the times so the younger kids start earlier—as long as bell times aren’t pushed so early that walking in the dark becomes a concern. Younger kids often wake before 7 am naturally and are fatigued later in the day, especially if they spent a few hours before school in childcare. (On that note, flipping start times at one district in Maine meant 60% of families who had to rely on early morning childcare had their cost burden reduced.)

Objection: When both parents work, older kids need to be home when their younger siblings finish the school day.

Response: Again, the length of the day isn’t changing, so the amount of childcare support older kids provide doesn’t change, only when they give it. 

Objection: Teenagers won’t be able to get after-school jobs.

After-school jobs are not affected because most are for dinner shifts or at stores that need help when adults get off work. A study by the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics showed zero impact on after-school employment.

Change at the National Level

A national law similar to the state laws of California and Florida would be ideal but is difficult to do. Federal lawmakers want it left to the states, and the states want it left to the individual districts.

But, as we learned in Michigan, there are ways to help schools start later without mandating it. 

We can identify or create ways for districts to offset any potential cost—“a way to mitigate the disincentive,” as one of our legislative allies put it. Support may be available in the mental health or transportation budgets, for instance, from states or the federal government.

The US Department of Education recently announced its new budget, and it includes new funds designated for COVID recovery, such as for increasing the number of school counselors, expanding nutrition programs, improving teacher retention, etc. Bizarrely, nowhere in their priorities is a single mention of the most cost-efficient and effective way to improve learning, despite studies that show allowing teens an extra hour of sleep is equivalent to cutting class size by a third.

Another potential avenue is the expansion of Community Schools, a program that adds services in low-income neighborhoods, including more tutoring services, nutrition, after-school programs, childcare, etc. Again, no mention of altering bell times, even though we know students from low-income schools benefit most from added sleep. 

I have recently started telling anyone at the US Department of Education who will listen to me (either directly or through my Congressional representatives) to do four important things:

  1. Talk about the importance of sleep and its connection to learning, memory consolidation, emotional regulation, and health on their website;
  2. Establish a department or specific responsibilities for individuals within the agency to guide and support school districts that want to change to later secondary school times;
  3. Make changes to bell times an integral part of the Community Schools program; and
  4. Support permanent standard time so teens are helped by the early morning light.

Take Action for Later School Start Times

Start School Later is just a starting point. If you sign on as a member district, it provides you with many tools and other support. 

Contact your legislators to tell them to support grants for districts that need to offset the cost of changing times. Because whether or not you have kids, the entire community benefits from higher graduation rates, safer roads, and less teen suicide.

As we have been pushing for change in Michigan, we find that almost all stakeholders—superintendents, teachers, coaches, legislators, and an increasing number of parents—agree we need to finally fix school start times for high schoolers. And that is with only a small group of advocates. We are at a pivotal moment in this fight, as key stakeholders search for ways to help students recover from the losses of the pandemic. Let us all unite and use what we know as sleep industry experts to bring lasting benefits to the teens in your community and across the country. Imagine how many teens’ lives could be improved if the message on the importance of later start times were to come from more people.

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