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Sycamore High explores making hours more flexible for students

School already lets them tailor their schedules somewhat, might expand options

SYCAMORE – The trope of the groggy teenager is familiar to most, and studies have shown that it's not a caricature.

Teenagers are tired, although maybe not all of them.

Sycamore High School principal Tim Carlson said not every teenager likes to sleep in, the same way not every adult likes to wake up early. 

"I think it depends on the person," Carlson said. "I am not a morning person. I learned not to take an 8 o'clock class in college."

Carlson said high school students have a lot of demands on their time: extracurricular activities, sports, jobs, and more. In recent years, studies have shown an increase in mental health issues among high school students, in part because of a lack of sleep and the stress students are under.

To accommodate students' busy schedules, Sycamore High is investigating flexible scheduling, and already has options for students to begin school earlier than others.

"In education, we sometimes try to do the factory model where everyone does the same thing," Carlson said.

With students' busy schedules, that doesn't work for everyone. Carlson said some of his students will work until 10 p.m., and then still have two hours of homework. Flexible scheduling gives students options to tailor their schedule.

For example, the school currently offers a "zero hour" for students to arrive on campus at 7 a.m. That allows for more time for students to do after-school activities.

"It's customized education for students," Carlson said.

Superintendent Kathy Countryman said another option to explore is allowing students to arrive later and stay later.

"We could have flexible options and offer something later in the day," she said.

She said if the district adds further flexibility, it must make sure students are still able to meet their core requirements.

A full schedule can also come with benefits.

"Research shows that kids who are involved do better academically," Carlson said.

Academic arguments for later start times abound.

A recent report by the RAND Corporation about whether schools begin too early for teenagers touted the economic benefits. Moving school start times past 8:30 a.m. would provide a national economic gain of $8.6 billion in the first two years and up to $140 billion after 15 years.

The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine published a position paper advocating for later start times and said the move would have academic benefits.

"A delay in school start time has beneficial impacts on teenage students," the reads reads. "Studies show that implementation of later school start times for adolescents is associated with longer total sleep time, reduced daytime sleepiness, increased engagement in classroom activities, and reduced first-hour tardiness and absences."

Again, it's argued the ideal start time is after 8:30 a.m.

Sycamore High School's start time for a regular schedule, 8:15 a.m., is already near the recommended time. But flexible scheduling at the school would provide for earlier and later times, depending on the preference of the student.

The district would have to consider several changes, such as working with teachers to find out who would want to teach earlier or later classes. Right now, the school district's contract with teachers makes provisions for teachers to volunteer for zero-hour assignments, but does not address possible later classes.

The normal school day hours are subject to revision each year, according to the one-year contract, which was approved July 31.

Flexible scheduling would mean middle and elementary schools would not have to move to earlier start times. When other districts have shuffled start times, busing restrictions have typically moved younger students earlier in the day.

Residents with elementary-aged kids support the idea of keeping their start times as they are.

"I like the start time," Jennifer Carwile said. "It works out well for us."

She said her daughter begins class at 8:25 a.m. She said she remembered her own start time in elementary school was 8 a.m.

Sycamore resident Thelma Kirby used to teach at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, and she can speak to the difficulties of teaching lethargic teenagers.

"Of all the kids that should sleep in, it's the high-schoolers," she said.

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