The right start?


HANCOCK COUNTY — In those final hours before the end of the school day, Maximus Gizzi’s mind starts to wander.

Monday through Friday, the Doe Creek Middle School eighth-grader starts class at 7:45 a.m. — it doesn’t seem so early, Maximus says, until the end of the day.

“That last period class, it’s really hard to focus,” he said. “You just want to be done since you woke up so early.”

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The time teenagers roll out of bed to start the school day plays a significant role in their overall health and, subsequently, in their academic performance, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control.

In the report, the CDC urges school administrators to consider starting middle and high school classes at or after 8:30 a.m., allowing teens to sleep in and arrive at school better rested and prepared to learn. In its recommendations, the CDC cites serious risks associated with sleep deprivation, from higher rates of obesity and depression to poor performance in school.

Across Hancock County, the times teens are starting their school days vary significantly from district to district, as do the reasons administrators have for the times they choose to begin classes.

At the Greenfield-Central School Corp., junior high and high school classes start at 8:35 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., respectively, fitting neatly within the CDC’s recommendations. Mt. Vernon School Corp., too, is within those measures, with classes at the middle school and high school starting around 8:30 a.m.

At Eastern Hancock, all classes start at 8:10 a.m. Southern Hancock School Corp.’s high school students slide behind their desks by 7:30 a.m., and middle school classes start at 7:45 a.m. For some districts, start times were chosen for practical reasons — around the time most parents would be on their way to work, for example — and most have been in place for decades.

That’s the case at Southern Hancock, and administrators said it’s never been problematic.

“It’s working for everyone in our community right now,” said Lisa Lantrip, Southern Hancock superintendent. “If it ever came to the point where it seemed like the community wasn’t satisfied, we’d consider changing them, but right now it’s fine.”

Students and parents from the district say the early mornings take some adjusting, but many are content with the way scheduling stands.

“It was kind of hard at first, but you just eventually get used to it,” said Rachel Fletcher, an eighth-grader at Doe Creek Middle School.

Fletcher said she sometimes runs out of steam at the end of the day and can feel a little groggy in her last class, but she also looks on the bright side.

“We get to get out of class earlier this way, and I like having that freedom to do what I want after school lets out,” she said.

Jim Voelz, principal at Doe Creek, says it’s up to parents to make sure their children are well-rested and ready to learn.

Parents must take responsibility for their children’s sleep schedule and stick to that routine, ensuring young learners are prepared for the following morning, he said.

“We might start earlier than other schools, but our parents have a good control of the household and know when to tell their kids to turn the electronics off and turn the lights off,” Voelz said. “Once a student wakes up, has breakfast, gets into the hallway and opens their locker, I feel that they’re good to go for the day.”

But administrators said they’re not resistant to change, provided it’s best for the district’s families.

Miles Hercamp, assistant principal at New Palestine High School, said many years ago, the district sent families a survey to gauge if they were satisfied with start times or desired a later start.

“The results were overwhelming,” he said. “The parents didn’t want times to change because it worked with their schedules, and we’ve been very successful with it since.”

Statewide, the average school start time is 7:58 a.m., five minutes earlier than the national average of 8:03 a.m., according to the CDC report.

Stacy Simera, outreach coordinator for Start Schools Later, a national advocacy group, said administrators should look more deeply at the research backed by the CDC.

“One of the most common things we hear from administrators is, ‘We’ve always done it that way,’ but this is a serious matter of public health and deserves deeper consideration,” said Simera, who also works as an independent social worker with children and adults. “When kids don’t get enough sleep, they’re more likely to choose sedentary behavior over active, and there’s plenty of research to back that up.”

The CDC report, titled “Schools Start Too Early,” is not the first of its kind. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a similar study encouraging later start times, and studies conducted since the 1990s have reached the same conclusion.

Harold Olin, Greenfield-Central School Corp. superintendent, said the district decided to push back its middle and high school start times about a decade ago with these considerations in mind.

“A lot of research of the adolescent mind shows that kids can do better if they can stay up a little later and get up a little later,” Olin said. “It’s more of their natural clock, if you will.”

He said though students can function without enough sleep, they’re more susceptible to illness and not as attentive in class.

The decision has served the district well, he said, but occasionally, it’s difficult to schedule extracurricular and athletic events with other districts that release their students earlier because of earlier start timing.

“It’s not without its own obstacles, but we don’t want extracurriculars driving the interest of our students’ learning,” he said. “We kind of stuck our neck out there when we made that change, but we remain committed to it.”

Dave Pfaff, principal at both the high school and middle school for Eastern Hancock School Corp., said Eastern administrators had to juggle many factors when making scheduling decisions.

“One important consideration for a small school system is that we run one bus route,” he said, adding that district buses pick up elementary, middle and high school students in one run.

He also cited research that’s proven younger students are more successful with an earlier start, noting it’s difficult for a district as small as Eastern Hancock to satisfy all recommendations.

“We’ve tried to find a happy medium that’s as close to good for all different age groups as we can manage,” Pfaff said, adding that the 8:10 a.m. start time has remained the same since he first joined the district as a teacher 37 years ago. “We feel like this is the best compromise for all kids.”

Still, Simera suggests that administrators need to reconsider in light of mounting research.

“Many are worried about the short-term impact (a late) start would have, but the movement is gaining momentum,” she said. “Educators are creative people, and if we put our heads together, we can always find a solution.”