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Canadian high schools resisting calls for later class start times

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A wave of international research suggesting delaying high school start times would have health and academic benefits for students has not yet crested in Canada.

Several individual boards and schools have embraced the growing number of global studies suggesting that early start times are at odds with adolescents' natural sleep patterns and can hamper both their academic progress and mental health.

But Canadian authorities have yet to join their international counterparts in recommending later bell times, and researchers are only starting to look at the impact of school hours on Canadian students.

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Still, some school boards are considering putting the idea to the test.

One school board in northwestern Ontario has already done so and declared the experiment a success.

The Keewatin-Patricia District School Board moved to "harmonize" school start times three years ago, pushing the start of high school class times back as much as an hour in some cases.

The board's director of education, Sean Monteith, said he'd been championing the shift for years, saying there were particularly compelling reasons to put the policy in place at a school board that covers two time zones and caters to many students in far-flung Indigenous communities.

Early start times coupled with long commutes, he said, were taking an obvious toll on students.

"Kids were failing out. Kids were dropping out. They weren't doing well," Monteith said in a telephone interview. "To continue to allow the same historical practice to go on at the expense of kids dropping out was just simply unacceptable."

Students at the board's six high schools now start their day at 9 a.m., up to 50 minutes later than they used to before the policy went into effect in 2014.

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The practical benefits emerged immediately, Monteith said, adding the move allowed the board to improve course selections by co-ordinating e-learning opportunities across the vast territory his schools serve.

Monteith said the success of the shift is evident in the declining dropout rates and rising attendance figures that he's observed in the past three years. But the true test will come at the end of the new academic year when the board will have a chance to see whether the new approach has improved graduation rates for the first cohort to start class later throughout their high school days.

Monteith's results would come as no surprise to researchers who have studied the effects of extra sleep on student performance.

Numerous studies from the United States and Europe document not only pervasive sleep deprivation among teens, but the effects that deprivation has on numerous aspects of their lives.

Lack of sleep has been linked to challenges with everything from academic performance to obesity to mental illness.

The evidence was convincing enough to prompt the American Academy of Pediatrics to name lack of sleep as a public health issue for teens and specifically name school start times as a factor.

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Last year, a team of McGill University researchers set out to assess the state of school start times in Canada and their potential impact on student sleep patterns.

The study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, showed an average start time of 8:43 a.m. among the 362 schools sampled. They also found that the later the opening bell rang, the more time students spent in bed.

Study participants aged 10 to 18 got an additional three minutes of sleep for every 10-minute delay in their school start time.

Lead researcher Genevieve Gariepy said those extra minutes all help bring the school day more in line with the average teenaged biological clock, which operates differently from those of either adults or younger children.

"What happens is our circadian rhythms...get shifted by about one or two hours when puberty starts. So adolescents tend to just fall asleep later and wake up later," she said. "Adolescents will typically fall asleep around 11 or midnight and wake up around eight hours later."

Despite the mounting research, few organizations have opted to go the route of Keewatin-Patricia and implement later changes across the board.

Some have dabbled in the practice by allowing individual schools to try it out.

One such school at the Toronto District School Board ran a two-year-project by beginning classes at 10 a.m.

It reported largely positive results, such as improved alertness in morning classes, lower absentee rates, generally improved grades and no corresponding drop in extra-curricular activities.

The school at the centre of the experiment, however, has since closed, and no other schools in Toronto currently start classes late.

One school board in London, Ont., is currently looking to follow the same route.

The Thames Valley District School Board recently voted unanimously to test the idea of later start times and is now looking for a school to volunteer to lead the effort.

Board chair Matt Reid said a full change will be complicated, citing the logistical challenges of changing current school busing schedules as well as potential resistance from parents or even students who hold jobs after school.

But he said the project promises to yield important data that would both help the board decide how to proceed and contribute to the ongoing conversation about later start times.

"We're going to be able to grab that data and we're going to compare it, which is going to be the exciting part," Reid said. "To really know, once and for all, if this is something that's of benefit to our students."

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