PORTLAND, Ore. — It's no secret. Oregon has a big problem when it comes to graduating high school students.
Year after year, Oregon ranks among the worst in the country. Gov. Kate Brown has publicly pledged to improve the state’s high school graduation rates, but the improvement has been modest.
When Brown selected Salam Noor as the chief state schools officers in 2015, she called him an "effective and collaborative leader." But Noor was forced out six months ago after another dismal graduation report and replaced by Colt Gill, the former superintendent for the Bethel District.
The most recent push for improvement, however, is not coming from bureaucrats. It's the students who are working for change.
Quince Assenberg, a senior at Franklin High School, is a member of the Multnomah Youth Commission, which works to help address youth-related issues and policy. Assenberg believes the answer to low graduation rates lies in later start times for high school students.
“This is what needs to be done for our young people," Assenberg said. "They are too tired, they are not able to learn well, they are not able to be happy, all of these different things.”
The Multnomah Youth Commission has been studying the concept of later start times for months. Assenberg said the results are dramatic.
“Not only are students' grades improving when you make school later, but you're also showing they’re happier, they're more productive," he said. "It's shown when you get more sleep, you tend to be a healthier person.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates up to 87 percent of high school students are not getting the recommended minimum of 8.5 hours of sleep a night. Doctors say starting school later in the morning would make a difference.
“That makes a ton of sense to me,” said Dr. Ben Hoffman, a nationally recognized pediatrician at Oregon Health and Science University. He said well-rested students simply perform better.
“Sleep is huge, and it really has to be all about sleep,” he said.
In fact, a recent national study by the RAND Corporation equates later school start times and an extra hour of sleep to an 8.6 percent increase in graduation rates and a 13.4 percent increase in college attendance.
“They're supposed to be learning, and if the brain is not functioning optimally and the right way, the way it’s supposed to because its sleep deprived, it's not going to learn," Hoffman said.
The problem, doctors say, is that adolescents don't get tired until about 11 p.m. If the recommended minimum amount of required sleep is 8.5 hours, with 9.5 recommended, learning would be optimal if school started at 8:30 a.m. or later.
“An extra hour is that important," said Dr. Kyle Johnson, a professor of child psychiatry at OHSU and a sleep medicine specialist with the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Clinic. "Sleep debt builds up over the course of a week and can lead to performance decrements.”
The benefits of later school start times are more than just academic, because a lack of sleep can also lead to other serious problems for adolescents, such as “major depressive disorder, suicidal ideation, obesity, metabolic dysfunction, cardiovascular morbidity and poor academic performance," Johnson said.
In Portland, high school starts at 8:15 a.m. But later start times are being implemented all over the country. The Seattle School District is the latest to do it. Some schools in Lake Oswego and North Clackamas are also starting later. Hoffman said it can be done.
“It's been done, it can be done and we just have to help the community recognize what the benefits are going to be, so that we can help develop this sense of urgency to really do what's right for kids," he said.
Portland Public School leaders are listening. Amy Kohnstamm is a mother of three and also a member of the school board. She said she knows a lot about kids who don't get enough sleep.
"I have three teenage sons," Kohnstamm said. "I know what it’s like to try to get kids out of bed before 7:30 in the morning. Its practically impossible.”
Kohnstamm is working with the Multnomah Youth Commission on the issue of later school start times. She said it's hard to ignore the results.
“This data is starting to be pretty irrefutable, that it makes a difference for kids," she said.
The students at the Multnomah Youth Commission will make a presentation to the school board's Finance, Audit and Operations Committee on May 1. Kohnstamm said a resolution could eventually be considered by the full board.
“We're always looking at what kind of intervention supports can we put in our schools to help our kids be more successful," she said.
Assenberg said he hopes the idea will be met with open minds.
“I think they really will consider this and say, you know, obviously something isn't working. Let’s try to implement later high school start times," he said.
Hoffman said it's the right direction for schools to go.
“You can put me on the spot, I think it’s absolutely a good idea,” Hoffman said. “And I would advocate strongly that we should be moving in that direction. It’s not going to happen quickly, it’s not going to be easy, but if we don’t acknowledge that its something that is important, we’re never going to get there."
The challenges for later start times are mostly economic, though the RAND study claims that later start times result in an economic benefit for the school, and the potential impact on extracurricular activity schedules.
Districts would need to figure out how to use a three-tiered system for their school bus schedules. In Portland, elementary schools start at 7:55 a.m. and high schools begin at 8:15 a.m.
Schedules for after-school extracurricular activities are also a concern. Later start times would push practices back later in the evening. A recent study from Stanford University reported that student-athletes perform better and are 70 percent less likely to get injured when they get a full-night's sleep.
Learn more here: startschoollater.net