EASTHAM — For decades, hundreds of bleary-eyed students across the Outer Cape scrambled to beat the 7:25 a.m. opening bell at Nauset Regional High School. Many set out before sunrise, coffee in hand, and traveled up to 45 minutes. Then they struggled to stay awake in class.
"At one point, we asked teachers not to turn off lights or show movies, because we didn't want students to fall back to sleep," said Tom Conrad, the former principal, now superintendent.
So in a state where most high schools start before 8 a.m., Nauset school officials in 2012 did the unthinkable: They pushed their start time back to 8:35 a.m., giving students an extra hour to sleep in.
The results were instantaneous, administrators say. More students showed up to school refreshed. Tardiness fell by 35 percent, and the number of Ds and Fs dropped by half.
Now, several high schools across Massachusetts are exploring whether to follow suit. The push for later start times is emerging in such districts as Belmont, Boston, Masconomet, Mashpee, Newton, and Wayland. The state Legislature is considering a bill to study the issue statewide.
For skeptics, the movement might seem like pandering to the whims of undisciplined teenagers who want extra Zs. But an increasing body of research has documented a shift in the biology of teenagers that delays their sleep and wake-up cycles by about two hours, pushing off their natural bedtime to 11 p.m. or later. That, in turn, means that if they need to get to school at the crack of dawn, they will routinely get only five or six hours of sleep.
The lack of adequate shut-eye can have detrimental effects on the health and academic performance of teenagers, increasing their risks for early morning car crashes, suicidal tendencies, depression, binge drinking, drug overdoses, and bad grades, research has shown. Several studies in recent years have recommended starting high school at 8:30 a.m. or later, saying students should get between 8.5 and 9.5 hours of sleep per night — not the 6 hours that is often the case.
"Some kids are exposed to the same degree of sleep loss for four or five years," said Judith Owens,
Yet efforts in other districts to delay start times have often been stymied. Critics say the change creates conflicts with sports schedules and afterschool programs, leaves students without enough time for afterschool jobs, and could interfere with bus schedules for elementary-school students who typically get out later in the afternoon.
Many of the nearly 1,000 students who attend Nauset Regional High School, tucked within the Cape Cod National Seashore, agree that starting school later is better, even though it pushes dismissal to 3 p.m.
"I'm not a morning person," Mason Swift, 17, a senior who plays on the school's baseball team, said recently. "If I had to be here for 7:30, I would be asleep for the whole first block" of classes.
Massachusetts has one of the earliest start times for secondary school students in the nation, according to a report last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, the morning bell for middle and high schools in Massachusetts rings at 7:53 a.m. — 10 minutes earlier than the national average — while less than 12 percent of all middle and high schools statewide start at 8:30 a.m. or later, according to the report.
The CDC has joined a growing number of national organizations calling for later start times for both high school and middle school students. Those organizations include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Sleep Foundation, and the nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association.
Owens, of Boston Children's Hospital, said many school systems have their schedules upside down, arguing that elementary school students, who typically have the later start times, should be the ones going to school early because they are the "morning larks."
A pre-dawn start
Shortly after 6, as the first rays of dawn illuminated the convenience stores, takeout restaurants, and doughnut shops in Maverick Square in East Boston, 17-year-old Koraliz Cruz stepped inside the glass entryway to the Blue Line. Cruz, with a tote bag slung over her shoulder, had been up for more than an hour. This was the beginning of her hourlong daily commute to Boston Latin Academy in Dorchester that has her racing to meet a 7:20 a.m. opening bell.
She must rely on public transit because the school system does not bus high school students, leaving her with a commute rife with potential delays. From the Blue Line, she changes to the Orange Line, then catches an MBTA bus in Roxbury for the final leg of the trip on traffic-clogged streets.
Many of Boston's approximately three dozen high schools have among the earliest start times in the state.
"I usually get five or six hours of sleep," said Cruz, explaining that four hours of homework kept her up until 11 the previous night. She said she almost always walks to the T with a friend because the neighborhood is not safe, especially before sunrise.
Cruz, a member of the cheerleading team, wishes school started at least an hour later, adding, "I usually don't wake up until third or fourth period."
Part of Cruz's slowness to wake up comes down to biology.
Mary Carskadon at the Sleep Research Laboratory at Bradley Hospital and at Brown University has been leading research into the sleeping habits of teenagers for decades. Carskadon and her team have found that teenage brains secrete melatonin — a hormone that causes drowsiness — around 11 p.m., about two hours later than younger kids.
The delay in sleep then ripples into the morning hours, often causing students to miss REM episodes, the deepest level of sleep needed to recharge their batteries, because their alarm clocks go off first or a parent bangs on their bedroom door.
Shifting school start times to 8:30 or later can bring about powerful change to students' academic performance and overall health, according to a study by the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota, which examined eight schools with later start times in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming.
The later times allowed about 60 percent of students to get at least eight hours of sleep, and the schools saw increases in standardized test scores and attendance rates and a decrease in tardiness, the study said. It also found that the number of car crashes involving teen drivers dropped 70 percent after a school shifted its start time from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.
This kind of research has spurred many local school systems or grass-roots parent organizations to reexamine start times.
The Newton School Committee is expected to select from a number of proposals this spring for later starts at the city's two high schools as early as 2017 to help reduce student stress, which can be elevated by exhaustion. A parent group is pushing for schools to begin at 9 a.m. instead of 7:50 a.m. at Newton North and 7:40 a.m. at Newton South.
In Mashpee, a panel of educators, parents, and school leaders last month recommended starting the Cape town's high school an hour later, 8:30 a.m., beginning fall 2017.
And the Masconomet Regional School System, made up of Boxford, Middleton, and Topsfield, is studying later start times for its middle and high schools.
But a group of Boston Latin Academy parents, who have been pushing for a later start time, are facing an uphill battle, even though a survey of students that parents conducted last year found that 40 percent of respondents got less than six hours of sleep a night. Only a handful of Boston public high schools start after 8:30 a.m.
"We believe this is a public health issue," said Deborah Putnam, one of the Latin Academy parents heading the effort.
Superintendent Tommy Chang declined to comment through a spokesman. In a statement, the School Department said Chang is "listening to parents and students on all sides of the debate" but added "there is no plan in Boston to begin high school classes later in the morning."
Researchers caution that delaying school start times is not a silver bullet. Some teenagers are exhausted because of other reasons, such as compulsively using their smartphones late into the night, staying up to watch television shows or movies, drinking too much caffeine, or cramming too many extracurricular activities into their days.
Logistics and logic
The Nauset Regional School District — which consists of Eastham, Brewster, Orleans, and Wellfleet — spent years debating whether to shift its longstanding 7:25 a.m. start time. Ultimately the research into the benefits of a later start time proved to be too persuasive to ignore.
The biggest challenge was transportation because Nauset buses students at all grade levels and schools shared a limited number of buses.
To accommodate an 8:35 a.m. start at the high school, officials had to move the start time of the elementary school, which had opened around that same time, to 7:45 a.m. They also moved back the middle school start time by a half hour to 8:30 a.m. so those students could share buses with the high school students.
The broad changes, while benefiting the high school, caused tardiness to rise temporarily in the elementary and middle schools as families adjusted to the earlier start times. The school system also never achieved transportation savings by consolidating the middle and high school bus routes.
But the impact on sports was not as significant as school officials initially anticipated. Neighboring school systems have been accommodating in scheduling games later in the day or on Saturdays, and several student athletes say sleeping later in the morning far outweighs the late afternoon practices and games.
"It's easier to get a good night of sleep," said Paul Prue, 18, a senior who plays baseball and says he gets about eight hours of sleep.
Not all Nauset students embrace a later start. Branden Patterson, 17, and a group of his friends show up to school early most mornings, drink coffee in their pickup trucks, and listen to country music while they wait until classes begin.
"Starting at 7:30 would be awesome," said Patterson, a senior, noting that an earlier dismissal would give him more time to work at a local fish market.
But Mark Mathison, a math and science teacher who specializes in teaching students with disabilities, said the later start time appears to have helped many of his students.
"Trying to motivate those students at 7:30 in the morning was tough," said Mathison, who also is president of the teachers union. "But now they seem more alert and awake."