metro schools

A Nashville lawmaker is pushing a bill that would require high schools statewide to begin classroom instruction no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Nashville high school students could see later school start times beginning in 2023 if a bill filed by Nashville Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons is passed by the state legislature.

Filed on Wednesday, Clemmons’ bill would prohibit public high schools statewide from beginning classroom instruction earlier than 8:30 a.m. Public middle schools would begin no earlier than 8 a.m. The bill doesn’t address elementary school start times. If passed, the change would begin in the 2023-24 school year.

“Our teens need sleep to survive. Chronic sleep deprivation is unequivocally known for the damage it does,” said Anna Thorsen, a mother of two children in Metro schools who’s leading advocacy on the issue with Start School Later Nashville. “This would give teens an extra hour and a half of sleep, minimum.”

How sleep impacts teens

Metro Nashville Public Schools has one of the earliest high school start times in the country, with most high schools beginning at 7:05 a.m. Some students board buses to school as early as 6 a.m.

Teenagers are recommended to get between eight and 10 hours of sleep each night to maintain physical health, emotional well-being and school performance by the National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

But to get the recommended hours of sleep in, Nashville high schoolers would have to go to bed by 7:30 or 8 p.m.

“Have you ever met a teenager that falls asleep at 8 o’clock?” Thorsen said. “There’s nothing you can do as a parent to make a teen go to bed at 8 o’clock without medicating, which is what we do in our house. We have now started to rely on melatonin to fall asleep and caffeine to wake up.”

Research has shown that getting more sleep is tied to better graduation rates, lower alcohol and substance abuse rates in teens, and better healing and endurance among teenage athletes.

In December, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy advised school districts to consider later starts to the school day to support students’ mental health in a public health advisory on mental health challenges American youths face.

Student performance a factor in school funding?

Clemmons decided to file his bill as Gov. Bill Lee’s administration plans an overhaul to the state’s K-12 funding structure.

Initial framework for the new funding plan, released last week, includes plans to provide additional funding for school districts based on performance and student outcomes, something Clemmons says he opposes.

“I completely disagree the funding should be contingent on test scores like standardized tests or the ACT and those things. I don’t think those reflect the quality of education that our students are receiving,” Clemmons told Main Street Nashville.

But if that element of the funding plan remains intact as legislation moves forward, Clemmons says later school start times are one critical, proven part of boosting student performance.

“If testing performance is going to be an important variable as this administration moves forward with school funding, there are two ways we can really facilitate better performance. One of those is later start times,” Clemmons told Main Street Nashville.

Student nutrition is another key to school performance, Clemmons says. Separately, he’s filed legislation to require all school-served meals to be provided to students free of charge.

“Those two bills are two ways that are guaranteed ways to improve classroom performance in our public schools: address hunger, and address sleep deprivation.”

Local advocates — including Thorsen’s Start School Later group — have been asking the Metro Nashville Board of Education to start school days later since the 1990s. The board has considered starting school days later a number of times in recent years, but without change. In 2020, board member Gini Pupo-Walker led an effort to facilitate a study on the impact of MNPS’ early start time.

Later school start times would likely come with significant expense to the district, impacting bus routes and schedules. Currently, elementary, middle and high school start times are staggered to avoid having multiple bus routes running at the same time. Later start times would likely require the purchase of more buses to get students to school. Teacher schedules and schedules for extracurricular practice and events would also be impacted.

Clemmons says expenses related to later start times could be covered by existing federal grants and surplus revenue collections from the state.

“We have the money,” Clemmons said. “Are we going to prioritize it and spend it on variables that we know will absolutely have a direct positive impact on schoolchildren’s performance in the classroom?”

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