School Daze

sleeping teenager

// by Ashley Williams

There has been much debate surrounding whether earlier or later school start times have a measurable impact on students’ success. According to research, one of the major pros for schools with later start bells is that students, especially high schoolers, benefit from extra sleep before starting a rigorous academic day. 

Shorter days and longer class periods help to boost the student’s academic experience without overloading them, research has shown. With lighter work loads, more time for homework at night, extra sleep and a more family friendly schedule, it’s difficult to argue against it.

However, there are several potential problems to consider. Parents’ work times and transportation issues can arise, especially if parents work traditional hours. Before- and after-school care may need to be arranged, which may become a cost burden on some families. Student employment and athletic program scheduling would also be impacted.

Beginning next fall, The Bolles School and Episcopal School of Jacksonville each have announced plans to shorten its school days to benefit both students and faculty members. Bolles’ middle school students will be in class from 8:30 AM to 3 PM. On Wednesdays, they'll start at 8:55 AM. Upper School students will start classes at 8:30 AM and end at 3:10 PM, with a start at 9:15 AM on Wednesdays. Episcopal School of Jacksonville will begin school days at 8:15 AM and end at 3:20 PM.

With the upcoming changes set to begin in the 2017-18 academic year, the school seeks to “bring student and mission-centered changes to the schools’ daily schedules in order to allow for the most balanced learning and teaching time for both students and faculty,” according to a news-letter released by Bolles in February.

While both schools developed the changes independently of each other, Bolles and Episcopal are working toward similar goals to help their students continue to excel.

Upcoming changes will include:

• Longer classes combined with fewer classes per day

• Rotating schedules to help access students' best learning times 

• A lighter homework load

• Class meetings for five out of every seven days 

• Increased teacher access

The concept is nothing new; these local schools will join many others across the country who have implemented similar changes. The schedule upgrades are an effort to allow for a more in-depth teaching and learning experience and serve to reduce stress among students who often find themselves juggling heavy homework loads, extracurricular activities and after-school jobs.

The benefit of more sleep in the morning will likely be popular among both institutions’ high school students. Researchers have found that this sleep-deprived group needs an average of more than nine hours of rest per night for optimal brain development. However, many high schoolers are averaging about seven hours of sleep per school night by the time they earn their diplomas. Some ambitious students get even fewer hours of rest. 

“Even if you decrease some of the homework by five or 10 minutes…I mean, that’s a huge thing for a high schooler,” says Tyler Hodges, associate head of school at Bolles. “You’re getting them 30 more minutes of sleep.”

High schoolers in St. Johns County are also benefiting from extra sleep with a 9:15 AM start time that has been in place for years, according to superintendent Tim Forson.

“A lot of students have other responsibilities as well, so the earlier start times didn’t seem [to be] in the best interest of our high school students,” he says.

The voices of faculty members played a key role in the decision to revise the school schedules at both academic institutions. “Recognizing the demands on students and how best to serve our students was really a collaborative effort that has included faculty in the process,” says Paige McGee, head of middle school at Episcopal.

The benefits extend beyond simply getting more sleep, however. “We’re looking at everything,” says Hodges. “We’re trying to bring more balance to homework loads and trying to provide a little bit more time for families to have some time together in the evenings.”

In Q&A sessions held to gauge the parents’ interest and address any concerns, they showed enthusiasm and support for longer classes and opportunities for a more in-depth learning experience for their children, according to McGee. 

With a couple of months of summer remaining, whether the students will adjust well to the altered schedules remains to be seen. Both Bolles and Episcopal plan to gather feedback from both faculty and students as the upcoming school year progresses.