Prioritizing Sleep: Convincing a Community to Change a High School’s Start Time

Aug 05, 2019

Prioritizing Sleep: Convincing a Community to Change a High School’s Start Time

Credit: iStock. Students arrive for school in the morning.

The teachers and administrators called it the “zombie walk.” High school students were arriving for school looking like they weren’t fully awake. On paper, the students were doing well, but their administrators could see something was not right. So, they decided to take an in-depth look at student wellness. What they found was that many students at the high-achieving school were not getting enough sleep.

Using research-backed evidence, Delaware Valley University Ed.D. student Gary Snyder helped convince a community to push back the high school’s start time. He said his experiences in DelVal’s Doctor of Education program helped prepare him to create positive change.

“We talk about leadership a lot and leading and driving positive change that helps students, teaching, and learning,” said Snyder. “The readings that we’ve done have been very applicable and have connected to the work we’re doing in schools.”

Snyder, who served as principal of Princeton High School for 16 years, worked with then-Assistant Principal Jessica Baxter to change the school’s start time from 7:50 a.m. to 8:20 a.m. The new, later start time was implemented in the 2018-19 school year. He’s now an advocate for later start times. Snyder retired from his role as principal in July 2019 and Baxter took over as principal when he retired. 

Snyder and Baxter co-authored an article, “It’s About Time: Later Start Times for High Schools,” which was published in the Spring 2019 issue of Educational Viewpoints. The article looks at the variety of considerations from community consensus to transportation that go along with making a switch to a later start time. It also makes the case that the “why” of later start times should outweigh any concerns about “how” to change school schedules. 

“The research is remarkably clear on the need for high schools to start later,” said Snyder. 

According to Snyder, insufficient sleep can contribute to issues such as irritability and a lack of focus in class, and can play a role in exacerbating depression and anxiety. 

Gary Snyder.

Credit: Delaware Valley University. Gary Snyder, a Delaware Valley University Ed.D. student, helped change a high school's start time.

Before the change to a later start time, Princeton High School students were reporting getting an average of just over six hours of sleep per night compared to the recommended eight to ten hours.

“Students were coming into high school at 7:30 looking like they were just zombies walking to class that were not fully awake,” said Snyder. “Many were suffering from lack of sleep.”

He said students were often staying up late to do homework and getting up early the next day. Many would try to make up for the lack of sleep by getting extra sleep on the weekend, a pattern which actually can add to the disruption of students’ sleep schedules. 

Snyder and Baxter used Stanford University’s “Challenge Success Student Survey” to take a data-driven look at student wellness at Princeton High School. 

“The survey really confirmed what we were seeing and thinking about the issues,” said Snyder. “The amount of sleep and the type of sleep students were getting was an issue.”

Snyder said it was not only the amount of sleep that was an issue but the specific time of day when the students were missing sleep.

“Their sleep cycle keeps them up later at night,” said Snyder. “The kind of sleep, the prime sleep they need, is often achieved in the early morning hours. Pushing back the start of the school days allows for this beneficial sleep.”

Snyder said after pushing the start time back to 8:20 a.m., they noticed a visible difference in the students. 

“We saw our kids arriving in the morning more awake than in the previous year,” said Snyder. 

Working with the community to change the start time was part of a two-year collaborative project on student wellness. The faculty at Princeton High School played a key part in making the change to the schedule through the Bell Schedule Committee, which was made up of teacher representatives from each academic department. 

“They were critical to the change process through the Bell Schedule Committee and their willingness to be innovative,” said Snyder.

Snyder said including the community throughout the process helped with reaching a consensus to move forward with changing the start time. This collaborative process resulted in support for the change in the school community.

“We were looking at several things to improve student wellness and engagement,” said Snyder. “Our kids do well in school and go to top universities, and yet we felt like we were missing something. By the time we came around to making the recommendation, we had brought in a lot of stakeholders, parents and community members to share what we were learning. There was a lot of interest in making changes because everyone was seeing the students being stressed and not getting enough sleep.”

Some of the logistical pieces the school needed to work out included transportation, after-school activities and athletics schedules.

“In the end, none of those were strong enough to make us not start later,” said Snyder. “Each time we would come to a hurdle to get over, we knew we had to do it, so we worked to figure out how to make this change for students.”

Snyder wants to prepare future educators to make positive changes in schools. 

“My work on high school transformation is multi-dimensional,” said Snyder. “In this case, we looked at the dimension of time and how to use it differently and better for 21st-century teaching and learning. My dissertation research is looking at the dimension of space and the relationship between 21st-century pedagogy and school designs. Time and space are related in that both can be arranged in a more flexible way to support student-centered pedagogy and transform high schools in the 21st-century.”

He is now in the final stages of completing the Ed.D. program and plans to graduate in December 2019. After he completes the program, he plans to teach in a program for educators and continue to do research.