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Chester County Student Forum members advocate for delayed high school start times

WCHE Interview Downingtown, PA – Sometimes a simple question sparks a big idea. For Matthew Daniels, the 2016 president of the Chester County Intermediate Unit’s (CCIU) Student Forum, that question came in his ninth grade thinking skills class. His teacher asked, “How can you make school better?” An idea sparked in his mind when he looked around the room and saw that students were half asleep, fortified with 24-ounce coffee cups. Why were students so tired? Was it the stress of high school? The pressure of testing? Were students staying up too late to work on homework?

It turns out that there is a biological reason – adolescent sleep cycles. Sleep patterns change as children grow into adolescence and adulthood. Their circadian patterns shift and teens move towards later bedtimes and, subsequently, later wake-up times. However, school start times force teens to wake up before their natural biological clock.

“Due to this shift, students are physically unable to just go to bed earlier, explained Downingtown student Zoe Freidman, also a member of the Chester County Student Forum. “Because of early school start times, students are chronically sleep-deprived, resulting in physical, emotional, academic and even safety risks.”

The research on this subject is compelling. There has been extensive research regarding adolescent sleep patterns and the resulting sleep deprivation caused by current middle school and high school start times. According to the National Sleep Foundation, widespread sleep deprivation among adolescents is “largely driven by a conflict between teens’ internal biological clocks and the schedules and demands of society.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Medical Association (AMA) have both recommended that middle and high schools delay their start time to 8:30 a.m. or later to better align school schedules to the biological sleep patterns of adolescents. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supports these recommendations for later school times, and classified the lack of sleep among adolescents as a “substantial health concern.”

In Chester County, high school students in Student Forum have become strong advocates in favor of delaying school start times.

Student Forum is a leadership group for Chester County students that is organized by the CCIU. Made up of student leaders from public, private and non-public schools, its purpose is to strengthen bonds between Chester County high schools and the community and to foster student leadership. The group discusses and exchanges ideas at meetings, volunteers for community service projects, interacts with students from high schools across the county and facilitates interaction between students and administrators.

During the 2015-16 school year, Student Forum created the Delayed Start Time Committee (DSTC) to specifically study the potential benefits and obstacles of delaying morning high school start times in the county. The DSTC worked with Hanover Research to scientifically study this topic, including ways to overcome difficulties in implementing a delayed start time. Students spoke with industry experts and disseminated a survey to over 2,000 Chester County high school students to gain a student perspective on the delayed start time initiative.

In May, the students presented their findings and recommendations for implementing a delayed start at the CCIU Board meeting. Their results were overwhelmingly in favor of implementation. Students presented research which showed that increased sleep for teens led to improved academic and athletic performance, health benefits and greater wellness and safety. The DSTC also presented challenges to implementation, potential ways to overcome these challenges and the results from the high school student surveys, which overwhelmingly showed that participants would like their school districts to explore a delayed start time.

“Administrators are interested to hear more from students and this topic captured their attention because we, as students, brought up the issue,” said Daniels. “After the presentation, Board members asked a lot of questions and it facilitated a great conversation.”

“The CCIU cares about the health and well-being of our students,” said Dr. Joseph O’Brien, CCIU executive director. “We are proud of the work the members of Student Forum did studying the benefits and obstacles of a delayed start time.”

DSTC students are now presenting their findings at individual school board meetings. Since the May presentation, they have presented at Avon Grove School District, Great Valley School District and the Unionville Wellness Committee. They will be presenting to the Oxford Area School District on August 9 and have generated interest from other districts in Chester and its surrounding counties.

The students understand that the change won’t happen overnight. “There will be obstacles to overcome and there are no one size fits all solutions,” explained Daniels. “We are confident the Board, administrators, teachers and the community in each district will work together to find solutions that will provide students the opportunity to reach their full potential."

For more information – including a complete list of the DSTC and Hanover Research Reports visit www.cciu.org/delayedstart.

Members of the Delayed Start Time Committee include: Chris Arencibia (Avon Grove High School), Lindsay Wanner (Coatesville Area Senior High School), Emily Mancilla (Collegium Charter School), Safoora Siddiqui (Collegium Charter School), Alex Moon (Conestoga High School), Brody Wilson (Downingtown East High School), John Paul Bell (Downingtown West High School), Zoe Friedman (Downingtown West High School), Jackson Ray (Octorara Area High School), Matt LoPolito (Phoenixville Area High School), Alice Liu (Unionville High School), Matthew Daniels (Unionville High School), Caroline Camp (B. Reed Henderson High School)

Pictured above left to right: CCIU communications specialists Becky Kremm and Andrea Miller interview Matthew Daniels on Chalk Talk (WCHE 1520 AM) about the Student Forum Delayed Start Time Committee.