The science is clear: Aligning the schedule of our schools with the biology of our students’ brains improves learning and wellness. Adolescent brains are unique. They are wired to fall asleep about 11 p.m. and their brains don’t come out of sleep mode until about eight hours later. Shifting to a later start time allows adolescents to be learning when their brains are more fully awake and provides them with more sleep, which can significantly enhance their physical and emotional wellness.

While the science might be clear, the path to a later start time is anything but. School districts looking to implement a later start to the high school day must contend with a wide variety of logistical, financial, and political challenges. In the 2018 – 2019 school year, Princeton High School (PHS) moved the start of its day from 7:50 a.m. to 8:20 a.m. While the steps we followed in making that shift will likely look different in other districts, we offer them here as a possible roadmap that might encourage even more schools to join us in the journey.

STEP 1: Lead with Values

The idea of moving to a later start time did not emerge from a vacuum. Enhancing the wellness of our students and increasing their engagement with the learning process were major goals of our district’s strategic plan. Our community was concerned about the stress our students were feeling, and we had already implemented measures such as specific homework-free weekends, Option 2 for some athletes as a substitute for physical education class, and the replacement of traditional final exams with more project-based assessments. Wellness was a value that had been clearly and repeatedly communicated to our students, staff, and families. When the conversation began about a later start time, it was framed within a context that was grounded in our values and familiar to our community.

STEP 2: Lead with Data

In the fall of 2016, Princeton High School gave its students a school engagement survey designed by Stanford University’s Challenge Success organization. The results gave us all a sense of urgency. Students were getting less than 6 ½ hours of sleep a night. They were spending more than three hours a night on homework. They were missing school an average of one day a month due to high levels of stress. And they were “doing school” rather than loving school. The data from the survey objectively expressed the experiences of our kids. It provided a powerful incentive for wanting to make more substantive changes — and we began to do just that.

STEP 3: Start with a Committee of Staff, Students, and Parents

Armed with the data, and empowered by our values, the PHS administrative team called together parents, teachers and students to be part of a Bell Schedule Committee, which began meeting in the winter of 2017. The charge was to explore a school schedule that would help meet the needs of our students in the areas of wellness and engagement. Over the course of a year, the committee met regularly to do research, provide updates, and gather feedback from the various academic departments and other constituent groups. The committee narrowed down a list of recommendations that were focused on fostering student wellness and deep, sustained learning, which was then presented to the superintendent and the board of education. This list included a six-day schedule infused with both longer periods and shorter periods — which rotated morning and afternoon — along with periodic unstructured periods for kids to meet with teachers, engage in club activities, play games in the gym or just relax with friends. The final recommendation from the committee was a later start time.

STEP 4: Cost out Transportation

Knowing we had faculty support for a later start time, we set out to determine what was feasible both logistically and financially in terms of transportation. We explored a number of options to see if we could continue to “tier” our buses by using the same buses for elementary runs as for the high school. Doing so would have required us to either start the high school at 8:45 a.m., which would have meant a 3:45 p.m. end to the day, or start our elementary schools earlier. The first option would have created more conflicts with athletic scheduling. The second option was feasible, but would have created a disruption for all families in the district. In the end, we settled on an option that had high school students starting at 8:20 a.m., which allowed us to place high school and middle school students together on the same buses. It also added a need for more contracted bus routes. The price tag for this third option was around $350,000, but our director of transportation (the unsung hero in this story) found a way to offset that cost by using our own drivers to handle previously contracted routes for athletics and special education placements.

STEP 5: Collaborate with Partners

In making the move to a later start time, it is essential to consider the impact on affected partners. Our most critical partner in this effort was the Cranbury Township school district, our K-8 sending district, which lies on the eastern side of Route 1 from Princeton. Cranbury shares our values around wellness and so their board of education was immediately supportive of the concept of a later start time. We collaborated with Cranbury to make numerous test runs on different days of the week to be sure that the duration of each bus route would not be increased by a change in the pickup time. We are deeply grateful to the Cranbury board for finding a way to increase their transportation budget by roughly $150,000 to pay for the additional buses needed to make the later start time work.

STEP 6: Adjust Athletics

A later start to the day means a later end to the day, which can affect the scheduling of games as well as the amount of time allocated for practice. In anticipation of the implementation of a later start time, our athletic director communicated early on with the other districts in our league. He readily received their help in scheduling games with us in a way that made allowance for the later end to our day. We also worked with our coaches on tightening up practices so that our student-athletes were getting high-level training in a more compressed timeframe. In addition, with the rotation of our periods in the afternoon, when students do have to leave school early for a game, they are not missing the same class each time.

STEP 7: Consider Childcare

One concern in implementing a later start time for our high school was whether a later end time would make it difficult for our high school students to be at home to greet and care for elementary school aged siblings of working parents. This proved not to be an issue in Princeton. Instead, we found a surprising benefit as many of those same older students could be at home in the mornings to see their younger siblings off to school and were no longer late in arriving at PHS.

STEP 8: Communicate with Stakeholders

Throughout the process, we communicated often and in various ways with all stakeholders. Emails went to the entire community outlining the rationale for a later start time as well as the details of implementation. We discussed the topic at board meetings and presented to high school and middle school parents through PTO meetings and evening forums. The faculty were deeply involved in leading this change and were kept up to date throughout the process at department and faculty meetings. Students helped us interpret the results from the Challenge Success survey and provided feedback through forums, surveys, and discussions with administrators regarding the proposed changes to the high school schedule.

STEP 9: Expect Issues with Implementation

We knew there would be something. We just weren’t sure what. Our stumbling block? Traffic. In the past, our three school levels, (elementary, middle, high) all had staggered school start times. With the change of the high school start time, all three levels now begin within 30 minutes of one another. This has not only placed more buses on the roads at the same time – which we had anticipated – but also a lot more cars. Congestion in the morning increased all across town. It was particularly problematic at the middle school and high school, which are located across the street from one another, start at roughly the same time, and now share buses. Fortunately, we were able to work with our police, the town engineer, and school personnel to help alleviate traffic in the areas around the school. We shifted student parking, changed pick-up and drop-off procedures, and we received permission to close a street during dismissal times.

STEP 10: Evaluate Impact

From the beginning, we were committed to collecting anecdotes and qualitative data to assess the benefits of the schedule change. We surveyed the staff and students at the end of the school year and had overwhelmingly positive feedback about the later start time. Tardies to school decreased by 37% from the year before, and teachers are anecdotally reporting that students seem more awake in the morning. This year, we will re-administer the Challenge Success survey and note changes in levels of sleep, stress and overall engagement.

STEP 11: Stay True to the “Why”

In pushing the start of the school day back by 30 minutes or more, a temptation will inevitably emerge: well-meaning folks will come to you to ask, why not fill in that “new” time in the morning with a sports practice, a play rehearsal, or maybe even another club or class? In the face of this temptation, remember the “why.” Our students were experiencing stress and fatigue as a result of chronic sleep loss and needed more time in the morning for their brains to fully engage. Despite the temptations, we have remained true to our values of student wellness and engagement in learning and held firm to our belief that no events should take place before school hours. Ultimately, this may be why the shift has worked in Princeton. We didn’t start with changing the start time; we began with our values and have remained true to them.

For other districts exploring a later start time our advice is this: put the time into the process, form a committee, do the research, engage student, teacher and parent voices, keep people informed, and stay committed to the “why.”

Steve Cochrane is the superintendent of Princeton Public Schools and Jessica Baxter is the principal of Princeton High School.