Panelists address school start times

Shawn Hardy

Superintendents from three districts where later start times are in place for secondary school students were featured during an information session Tuesday night as the Greencastle-Antrim School District continues to consider whether to make a change.

"Over the past several years, there has been significant mounting scientific evidence that chronic adolescent sleep loss has become a public health issue," says the introduction to the tab Adolescent Sleep and School Start Time under "Parents" on the district website:


Dr. Kendra Trail, superintendent, plans to make a recommendation in April on whether to change school start times after months of research including discussion by district leadership; regular meetings of a committee comprised of parents, students, teachers, administrators and school board members; and community and student surveys.

"This is a topic with strong emotions and opinions," Trail said, emphasizing that a decision has not been made.

If a change is recommended, Trail believes the 2019-20 school year would be too soon, she said at the Feb. 7 school board meeting and repeated at Tuesday's meeting. In addition, a Pennsylvania legislative committee report on school start times for adolescents coming out in September will provide additional information to districts in the state.

Whether to change school start times was brought up a number of years ago, but was not resolved. The school board asked Trail to revisit the issue and making a recommendation is No. 1 on her list of goals for the year identified in August.

Nearly 100 parents, students, community members, teachers, school board members and administrators attended the information session on the topic Tuesday in the high school auditorium. It followed a presentation in October by Dr. Gail Karafin, a licensed school psychologist in the Doylestown area and founder of Start School Later Pennsylvania, a chapter of a national nonprofit focused on educating and advocating for legislation "to ensure evidence-based school hours at the national, state and local level."

The three superintendents answered a series of questions given to them in advance for the bulk of the meeting, which wrapped up with written questions submitted by members of the audience. Not all questions were answered by the designated end time of 8:30 p.m. and they will be addressed in an FAQ that will be added to the district website.

Questions and comments also can be emailed to:


The panelists 

Appearing via videoconference were:

  • Dr. Tracy Vitale, superintendent of the Seneca Valley School District.

Vitale's research on school start times and the sleep needs of adolescents goes back at least 15 years to her days as a middle school educator. Discussion of school start times in her district began eight years ago when she became superintendent.

What time school starts is one factor that can be controlled as districts look at adolescent health, including issues like sleep, nutrition, anxiety and depression.

Beginning this year, the start time was pushed back 35 minutes for seventh- to 12th-graders and 15 minutes for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

  • Rodney Benedick, acting superintendent of the Tuscarora School District.

Named acting superintendent of the nearby district last June, Benedick inherited a district where elementary schools have started around 7:30 a.m. and secondary schools have started around 8:30 a.m. for more than 20 years.

Although he was not in the district at the time and most of the decision-makers are no longer with the district, the discussion originated because the elementary school day was really short, both starting and ending earlier than secondary schools, and was followed by information from adolescent research.

  • Dr. John Sanville, superintendent on the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District.

Students are credited with initiating the change in the district following a classroom assignment to identify and research one thing schools could do better.

"They said start school later, we're tired," Sanville said.

The school board and administration dismissed the idea because of the challenges, but the students were persistent, following up with an AP psychology study of adolescent sleep and circadian rhythms, which indicate adolescents are physiologically prone to go to sleep and wake up later.

A countywide effort also failed because of challenges, but then Sanville's board and administrators became more concerned about student wellness and began investigating start times.

A year and a half ago, the district made "a modest change," pushing back secondary start time from 7:35 to 8 a.m. and delaying elementary start time by 15 minutes.

"So the kids are getting an additional half hour of sleep," Sanville said, noting that adds up to two and a half hours a week.

Getting there 

"The first thing you say is 'no decisions have been made' and mean it," Sanville said. He described a "months-long, labor intensive process" involving research, providing information, meetings and answering concerns.

"Change is difficult," Sanville said.

He admitted a few concerns could not be addressed and they were outweighed by benefits for students.

Vitale talked about a systemwide approach revolving around "how can we make things better in our school district?" During the discussion, Vitale said, "We tried to stay in the science and not the emotion."

Sanville also said preparation, discussion and putting the science out in the community were keys to success.

It is also important to have the leadership team and school nurses believe in the change because they are its ambassadors, Vitale said.


Transportation was mentioned most often as a logistical challenge, with the districts taking a close look at their schedules and how to improve efficiency.

Benedick admitted because of the size of the Tuscarora School District some elementary students do spend a lot of time on the bus in the dark. Sanville said his district has a few days when students are dropped off after dark in the winter.

In the Seneca Valley School District, teachers still come in at the old time, gaining "professional community learning time in the morning." In Tuscarora, teachers have more development time at the end of the day.

Teachers and students arriving at different times in Seneca Valley also alleviated the beginning-of-day traffic jams that had seen some students driving in early and napping in their cars.

Transportation also is an issue for students who attend career centers that have not changed their hours. In Tuscarora, Franklin County Career and Technology Center students ride the elementary buses then are shuttled to FCCTC, Benedick explained.

Another issue was sports, with some games extending into the dark.

Benedick said the needs of the 20 percent of students who play sports need to be balanced with all students getting more sleep.

What they've seen 

The change was fairly recent for Seneca Valley and Unionville-Chadds Ford so most of the results are anecdotal at this point.

Vitale talked about one veteran teacher, who a week into the school year with the new start times, commented, "Why didn't we do this years ago?"

Teachers also say students are more alert for first period, according to Vitale.

Sanville has found comments about the change in his district to be 10-to-1 positive, with parents saying, "Thanks for giving me by son or daughter back" because mornings are more pleasant when they don't have to drag their kids out of bed.

He also said his district has seen an increase in championship athletic teams since the change was made.


The idea of flipping the secondary and elementary start times again comes up from time to time in Tuscarora because of coordination with FCCTC and changes in district leadership, but people say they don't want to change back, according to Benedick.

"We got it right 20 years ago," Benedick said.

Vitale said she could solve many budget problems if she had a nickel for every time someone said, "Kids will just stay up later."

Maybe they will, maybe they won't, but school start time is something the district can control that benefits student wellness.

"Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good or better ... even 15 minutes is worth doing. Be brave, because you will be challenged ... be thorough because there are a lot of moving parts," Sanville said.

"A very modest change made a significant difference for our kids. I'm a proponent for pushing back start times," Sanville said.