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Jason Walsh: State legislature moves toward later school start times


The mid-morning bird gets the worm.

That could be the situation if a new bill making its way through the state Legislature comes into law. SB 328 would prohibit California middle and high schools from starting regular classes prior to 8:30 a.m.

The proposed laws, which recently passed the state Senate, is the brainchild of So-Cal state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge), who based his legislation on a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other reports in recent years, that show school districts with later start times enjoy increased attendance, test scores and grade point averages.

Currently state middle and high school start times average in at about 8:07 a.m. – and the result, say sleep scrutineers, is a generation of dozy youth fighting off the dreaded head-bob in first period English.

It seems that, with all due respect to “Poor Richard,” early to bed early to rise doth not make a teen healthy, wealthy and wise.

And before we assume the scientists are laying it all at the feet of ameliorating parents unable to coax their Halo-addicted kids into bed at a decent hour, there’s actually some scientific rationale behind the adolescent mind’s biological need to stay up and catch “Tosh.o.”

In the late 1990s, research into circadian rhythms started to recognize that adolescent bodies secrete the sleep-related hormone melatonin at a later time of day than they did in pre-adolescence (or would later as adults). As a result, while most adults are ready for their heads to hit the pillow by 8 p.m., most teens are still full of energy, and may only just begin to wind down at 10 or 11 or later. If they’ve got to be in class at 8 a.m. or earlier, they’ve missed their necessary nine-hour visit to the Land of Nod by several stops on the Sleepytown Express.

If SB 328, also known as the “plan for later” bill, is eventually approved by the Legislature and signed by the Governor, it would make California the first state in the country to enact such a law – though it wouldn’t actually take effect until the 2020 school year.

And don’t start fluffing up your pillows just yet, Sonoma students – its effect in Valley schools would be at best a 10-minute hit on the snooze alarm. That’s because the Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s two middle schools – Altimira and Adele Harrison – already start at 8:45 and 9 a.m., respectively, and have done so for nearly a decade. And about two years ago Sonoma Valley High School bumped its first period to 8:20 a.m., to allow for a later “zero” period elective class.

Former longtime Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Louann Carlomagno, who recently resigned from SVUSD to accept a position as head of the Hillsborough City School District, oversaw the move to a later start time two years ago at the high school. She supports later starts to the school day, but is skeptical as to whether a state mandate is necessary, as it peels away another layer of local control. On the other hand, she says, “there are pressures on schools to keep bell schedules status quo and this legislation may be just what some schools need to make the change which they have been wanting to make all along.”

Carlomagno points out that legislating school schedules isn’t as simple as it sounds – especially in districts with high schools that offer zero period electives or are considering moving to a seven-period schedule.

“There is always a push to move SVHS to a seven-period schedule which means more class access for students, but also a longer day – there’s just no way to get around that,” she says. “At the same time you have another group of parents advocating for a later start time which would mean a significantly later dismissal time if you combine this with a seven-period schedule.”

And that bumps up against sports, club meetings, performing arts rehearsals and – oh yes – homework.

Which begs the question whether the increase in somnolent seniors and soporific sophomores isn’t merely about too early a school day – but too much of one as well.

It’s certainly something to sleep on – though Valley students and teachers would be wise to do so now. First day of school is 10 days away, kids.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.