Ariana Bradley sets multiple alarms that start going off at 5:30 a.m. on school days, but the 18-year-old rarely rolls out of bed before 6:30.
Bradley is a senior at Oklahoma City’s Northwest Classen High School, where classes begin at 7:35 a.m. Her first class is Advanced Placement literature.
“I’m usually late to first hour,” Bradley said. “First hour I’m still groggy and tired.”
For what is likely a majority of Oklahoma high school students, start times for school days are earlier than what medical experts and researchers say is best for their academic performance and their chances of avoiding physical and mental health problems. The early school bells often cause students to get fewer than the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep.
On many nights, Bradley gets a little more than half the recommended sleep. Sports and choir activities at school and church mean she often doesn’t get home until 8 p.m. After chores, homework and a shower, she usually goes to bed between 11 p.m. and midnight.
A study released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2018 found that 73% of high school students across the country reported sleeping seven hours or less on school nights. The percentage with insufficient sleep increased with each grade level.
Among the state’s 30 public school districts with the most high school students, Oklahoma Watch found 21 begin classes earlier than 8:30 a.m. That means a total of 64,680 high school students, or 70% of the 92,647 in those districts, begin their school days earlier than what national health experts recommend.
In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement recommending that middle and high schools start classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. In 2015, more than 75% of public middle and high schools started before 8:30 a.m. in 42 states.
“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” said lead author Dr. Judith Owens.
In response to findings, schools and states have begun moving class starts.
Last year, California became the first state to mandate later school start times for teens. The new law takes effect in 2022. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2018, saying local school districts are better equipped to determine their hours.
That’s how it’s done in Oklahoma, which requires 1,080 hours of instruction a year but doesn’t specify start and end times.
Tulsa Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district after Oklahoma City, flipped the starting times for elementary and high schools in 2005 to give the older students more sleep time. High schools start at 8:30 a.m.
Bixby Public Schools did the same this school year.
“It really is what’s best for kids,” Bixby Superintendent Rob Miller said. “We have to give them the opportunity to get adequate sleep to be productive at school.”
Bixby moved the high school start time to 8:45 a.m. and stated no activities could begin before 7:45 as it would “defeat the purpose of the initiative,” he said.
The school board approved the new schedule in February, giving everyone six months to prepare. Strong opinions were expressed on both sides, Miller said, and some people are still unhappy with the change.
Changing school schedules affect transportation, with increased costs and the need to redesign bus routes and hire drivers.
Bret Towne is superintendent of Edmond Public Schools, where the high schools begin at 7:40 a.m. Half of the 17 elementary schools start at 8:25 and the other half start at 8:50. Running all of the elementary schools on the early route would require buying 30 to 40 more buses and hiring that many more drivers, Towne said.
It also would mean picking up elementary students starting at 6:15 or 6:30, with their school day ending at 2:30 p.m.
“It doesn’t work for us right now,” Towne said. “The biggest holdup is picking up elementary students early-early and having no supervision for them after school.”
But transportation isn’t an issue for Yukon Public Schools, which will vote next month on changed start times when it opens a new intermediate school in August and must adjust bus routes.
Under the proposal, elementary and intermediate students will start school 30 minutes earlier and middle school will begin 45 minutes later, at 8:25. But the high school start time moves back only 20 minutes, from 7:30 a.m. to 7:50 a.m.
“It’s not as dramatic as I’d like it. If we had the opportunity, I’d love to start high school at 9:00,” Simeroth said. “Considering students’ work, athletics and other activities, that is as far back as we could push high school.”
Oklahoma City Public Schools administrators will consider a 7:50 a.m. start time for elementary schools, high schools at 8:40 a.m. and middle schools starting at 9:30 a.m.
“My teams are currently gathering input from a variety of stakeholders and having conversations about timing and logistics for such a shift,” Superintendent Sean McDaniel said.