Dawson commits a lot of time and resources toward examining the student experience; every evaluation and decision begins with our students in mind. Whether it’s the class schedule, guest speakers, service-learning programs, facilities updates, recess, lunch menus, athletics, or homework loads, we constantly look for ways to improve and meet our students’ needs by asking, “How can we encourage our students to build self-efficacy and support their wellbeing while also showing parents the value of a Dawson education?”
A Friday hallway conversation between two friends at Dawson
Student A: What are your plans for the weekend?
Student B: Sleep. What about you?
Student A: Same. It’s going to be awesome.
Another conversation later that day in the Dawson Dining Hall
Student C: I figured out the best part of next week.
Student D: What? Gretel and Hansel release?
Student C: I am excited to see that, but not what I was thinking. Wednesday is a late start day. That means I get to sleep in and not worry about my parents waking me up at 6:30 a.m.
Student D: Ahhhhh, yes. Win. Who do we talk to about getting more late start days?
As a Challenge Success School and member of the Northwest Association of Independent Schools, part of Dawson’s analysis involves the “S” in Challenge Success’s SPACE Framework, which stands for Student Schedule and Use of Time. Not only has the School’s assessments of schedules and time led to changes in the middle school class schedule and homework load, but it has also led to the implementation of Late Start Days. After reading and listening to the research performed by experts all over the country, we want to instill in our community that sleep is just as important to our health as a balanced diet and exercise while our students work hard to achieve excellence in mind, body, and character.
The primary rationale given for school start times affecting academic performance is biological. Recent studies demonstrate, “adolescent changes in sleep (delayed sleep phase and disrupted sleep) are evident prior to the bodily changes of puberty” (Wolfson & Richards, Oxford Univ. Press), and “young people have special needs during adolescent development that are related directly to their intrinsic sleep cycles” (El Sheikh ed. 2011, p. 268). Activities such as sports and clubs, along with family and social schedules, may make it difficult for students to adjust the time they go to bed. In addition, the onset of puberty brings about two factors that can make this adjustment particularly tricky for adolescents: an increase in the amount of sleep needed and a particular change in the secretion of melatonin both shift the natural circadian rhythm of adolescents, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to fall asleep early in the evening. Lack of sleep, in turn, can interfere with learning (Sleep, 16(3), 258-262). A 1996 survey of research studies found substantial evidence that less sleep is associated with a decrease in cognitive performance, both in laboratory settings and through self-reported sleep habits. Researchers have likewise reported a negative correlation between self-reported hours of sleep and school grades among both middle and high school students (Wolfson & Carskadon, 2005).
Of course, increased sleep and academic performance are not the only reasons to delay the start of the school day. An earlier start time may mean a student skips breakfast and, according to Healthychildren.org, skipping breakfast is more likely to cause weight gain than it is to prevent it. A 2008 study in the journal Pediatrics found that adolescents who ate breakfast daily had a lower body mass index than teens who never ate breakfast or only ate it on occasion. Ironically, the breakfast eaters consumed more calories, fiber, and cholesterol in their overall diets compared to those who skipped breakfast. On Late Start Days, we’ve had fewer tardies and absences and had zero academic notes and behavioral infractions. Other explanations are possible as well, but the limited data is promising.
Finally, RAND economists estimate that delaying U.S. middle and high school start times to 8:30 a.m. would contribute $8.6 billion to the U.S. economy after just two years, $83 billion after a decade, and $140 billion after 15 years, with an average annual gain of $9.3, far outweighing any costs of change.
The dynamics around sleep, school start time, student performance, homework and a student’s evening time are complex. Dawson is careful in its implementation of late starts because we know the school schedule is the dominant principle in organizing a family’s life: The schedule dictates when the family - not just the student - wakes up, goes to school, eats dinner, spends time together and goes to sleep. Therefore, Dawson has a responsibility to our families to make student-centered decisions and mission-appropriate policies that treat students like human beings. For us, that begins by reviewing strategies and realities that take into account the students’ 24-hour day, considering homework and class loads, transportation, co-curricular demands, and school start and end times.
Last year, Dawson implemented one late start day; this year, a second was added. It turns out students not only benefit, but our Dawson faculty love having the extra time in the morning to plan, relax, grade, and think as well. Many families report positively, too, as their mornings aren’t as rushed and there is less arguing. Everyone wins!
By Chris Estrella
Director of K-8
Hear more about how Dawson utilizes intentionally diverse focus groups and surveys to make student-centered decisions on the Dawson Podcast:
Find out more about the importance of sleep from our students' perspective on the Dawson Podcast episode recorded ahead of last year’s student-led Sleep Week campaign: