Maine Schools Team Up for Teen Health -- and Sleep

Chalk up another victory for teen sleep. The winners this time are students at four districts in Southern Maine, whose school boards have just voted in tandem to delay bell times to give them a shot at getting the sleep they need.
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Chalk up another victory for teen sleep. The winners this time are students at four districts in Southern Maine, whose school boards have just voted in tandem to delay bell times to give them a shot at getting the sleep they need.

Starting next semester, students in Biddeford, Saco and Dayton, plus the Thornton Academy, will be starting class no earlier than 8:30 a.m., as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Middle and high school students in these districts currently begin instruction between 7:30 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. Maine's average high school start time is 7:53 a.m., 10 minutes earlier than the national average.

Collaboration Across Communities
Teamwork was key to this historic decision, the first voluntary, inter-community school board vote. Dozens of parents and medical professionals from neighboring districts flocked to a cross-district meeting before the vote to share data on how teens who start the day after 8:30 a.m. are healthier, happier, more productive, and less likely to be injured on the athletic field, drive drowsy, or engage in other risky behaviors.

"I am pleased that Biddeford was able to cross the bridge and partner with area schools to make this critical change in service to our kids," stated Biddeford superintendent Jeremy Ray. "The science is unimpeachable, and the results will be measurable. I am pleased that we were able to accomplish what so many consider difficult: collaborating across town lines. Our leadership team in Biddeford has a history of shared services and collaboration, and this is yet another example of what good will and good science can do to help our community."

Tracey Collins, a Saco parent and leader of the Southern Maine chapter of the national nonprofit Start School Later, agreed. "Every time we met with school officials they agreed with the science but said they couldn't make a change without cooperation from neighboring schools. When I finally went to see Superintendent Ray, he was the first person who saw the situation as an opportunity rather than an obstacle."

Collaboration remains key in easing the transition process, including attempts by school systems and local Parks and Rec leaders to devise proposals for low- or no-cost solutions for parents who may be inconvenienced by next year's shifted schedules. "It is truly amazing that so many community organizations have come together to support healthy hours," said Collins.

Pediatricians and Sports Docs on Board
Health professionals working hand-in-hand with community advocates over the past few years laid the groundwork for April's vote.

"As the school physicians for Biddeford and Saco/RSU 23 school districts, respectively, we have advocated wholeheartedly for the adaptation of a healthier start time for our teens," wrote Drs. Margaret Bordeau and Joan Pelletier in the Portland Press Herald. "Complicated issues such as this one are often fraught with hints of political influence, fears about the uncertain and resistance to change in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. We encourage families, school administrators, community members and school board representatives to see the big picture and support healthy school start times."

Last fall Dr. Lucien Ouellette and 17 other York and Cumberland County pediatricians and sports medicine doctors signed a joint statement explaining why student athletes would be the biggest winners when school hours allow for healthy sleep. The letter explained that sleep is key to improving strength, endurance, and accuracy, noting that athletes who get healthy sleep have "increased free throw accuracy, faster sprint and reaction times, and better mood" and those who are sleep-deprived show "decreased focus, cognitive slowing, memory impairment, diminished attention and poor vigilance" and have higher risks of "overuse and fatigue related injuries."

"Adolescent athletes who slept eight or more hours each night were 68 percent less likely to have injuries," Dr. Ouellete recently told WCSH6 News.

Blueprint for Change
According to Collins, successful change in Southern Maine came down to three ingredients:

  1. "A national grassroots effort that meant we didn't have to reinvent the wheel... Start School Later National can take full credit for this, even if we are a tiny little blip on the national map.
  2. Local school physicians (pediatricians) that were willing to stand up repeatedly to educate the public.
  3. School superintendents that believed in the idea and actually instructed their staff to look at real solutions with a can-do attitude."

Cross-district collaboration between those superintendents was critical as well. And it's an approach that's catching on. In Massachusetts, school superintendents in the Middlesex Athletic League recently signed a joint statement outlining their goal that all league high schools start between 8 and 8:30 a.m. by the 2018-2019 school year. The Northborough/Southborough regional school district is also working to get the 10 other districts in their athletic league to collaborate to move school start times.

Working together across districts may accelerate and overcome barriers when neighboring communities share athletic calendars, regional vocational services, and busing -- but it's not the only, or even the most common, approach. In fact, hundreds of school districts have successfully adopted later start times without assistance from their neighbors. A recent study of successful start-time change (the "Blueprint for Change") found that there was no one-size-fits-all plan, although certain elements are essential, including supportive school leaders, authentic engagement with community stakeholders, and public education about sleep health.

The "Number One Rule" said Collins is to "hire a forward-thinking superintendent that still cares about making a difference and a better school system."

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