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Fatigue. Irritability. Moodiness. Depression. Impaired concentration and physical performance. Memory problems and thinking difficulties. Increased risk for higher blood pressure, weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. These are some symptoms that an overwhelming number of studies have linked to sleep deprivation.

And this come as no surprise to Dr. Tracy Vitale, superintendent of schools for Seneca Valley School District. About 15 years ago, while she was principal at the district's seventh- and eighth-grade school, Vitale noticed how tired students appeared to be. Being an educator, she wanted to learn more about the developmental needs and changes in this age group, which led her to begin researching the science behind proper rest.

Late to bed

Studies have shown that teenagers’ brains do not release melatonin, the hormone that helps your body know when to fall asleep, until 11 p.m. For most adults, melatonin is released between 8 and 10 p.m. This means even if parents insist their teenagers goes to sleep earlier, they won’t likely fall asleep until sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight, then must be up early enough to catch a bus that arrives as early as 7 a.m.

This is a routine that promotes sleep deprivation.

For Vitale, the research points to a single, logical solution: Teens need more sleep; and she believes that if Seneca Valley is serious about a commitment to improve students’ health and learning environment, the school day must start later to allow students more of it.

“I can’t control parenting style and when a kid goes to bed,” Vitale says. “But I can control the school day start time. It’s time for educators to wake up and be brave.”

But moving the start time is a tall order. The sheer size of Seneca Valley complicates the equation. Accounting for 8,000 students and covering 100 square miles, Seneca Valley is the 29th largest of Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts. If Vitale was going to change the school schedule she needed to tackle two issues: sports and transportation.

Breaking tradition

Early school start times have their roots in a society centered on agriculture. Children went to school early, then got home early in the afternoon to help on family farms. Bussing schedules and athletic programs evolved over time and wrapped themselves around these agriculturally driven schedules.

Today, many of Seneca Valley are now housing developments. Agriculture simply does not play a role in the community like it did 30 years ago.

About two and half years ago, Vitale decided she wanted to make the change to a later start time.

“Enough is enough,” she says. “Why are we doing things based on tradition? Just because it’s convenient to not tinker with a schedule set by an outdated tradition? Let’s be guided by science, not emotion. If our district’s top priority is about learning, we need to act.”

The plan

Vitale started by lining up the pros and cons of changing the schedule and sharing the research. Ultimately, she wanted minimal impact on everyone, with the goal to allow students more sleep. The school board and administrators strongly supported her.

“I needed the help of the directors of athletics and transportation,” she says. “They had to believe in the research before wanting to make a change.”

With the support of school administrators, Vitale then surveyed parents, teachers and students. Only after getting their input did Vitale make the district’s intentions more public. She pointed community members to the district’s website, which posted research backed by trusted, reliable sources such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Sleep Foundation, Penn State and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Additionally, the district posted survey results as the easy-to-read infographics pictured here.

The director of transportation reassessed the bussing schedules. He built a new schedule from scratch with new routes designed to increase efficiency. As a result, he reduced bus route times from one hour to 35 minutes. And that’s exactly what the district needed.

For the 2018-19 school year the district is considering a new start time model that pushes start times for grades seven through 12 ahead 35 minutes. School would start at 8:09 a.m. and dismiss at 2:41 p.m, rather than the current times of 7:34 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. The elementary start times would shift to 9 a.m. with a 3:30 dismissal.

For more information and research on sleep, survey infographics, data and articles visit SVSD.net/SleepStudy.

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