Kaimuki High School is the latest-starting public school in Hawaii, and according to a preliminary study, students there think the later morning bell may make for better health and academic performance.
Tracy Trevorrow, a sleep researcher at Chaminade University, conducted an informal survey of Kaimuki students recently. Of 750 or so students, about 70 percent volunteered to fill out a form that asked them about their sleep health.
For the most part, students reported getting more sleep, improved sleep quality and even slightly better grades since the school switched its start time from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. in August 2015.
Trevorrow said he’d like to conduct additional research on more schools, using the Kaimuki survey as a springboard. He said he plans to propose a statewide study of sleep habits and grades to the Department of Education.
“Start times were not developed to promote students’ well being and learning … It was made to accommodate adult issues,” Trevorrow said.
The Hawaii Health Data Warehouse, a partnership between the state Department of Health and the University of Hawaii, estimates that about 75 percent of high-schoolers and half of middle school students don’t get the eight hours or more of sleep that would be ideal.
Trevorrow thinks the results of a statewide study could lead to a call for later school start times, something legislators considered in 2014 when they tried and failed to enact standardized bell schedules across the state.
An Hour Buffer
Before the school switched to a 9 a.m. start, Kaimuki Principal Wade Araki said, his staff was dealing with students who were sleepy and tardy. In addition, Kaimuki has no bus system, so many students needed to drop their younger siblings off at Kaimuki’s feeders schools like Aliiolani Elementary and Washington Middle School before heading to class themselves.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the first school bell should ring no earlier than 8:30 a.m. nationwide. In Hawaii, only two public high schools follow that recommendation, and four schools overall start at least that late.
“Schools in the mainland got good results starting a little later,” Araki said.
To meet the education department’s quotas for instructional time, Kaimuki students get out at 2:50 p.m. most days, 10 to 25 minutes later than they did in the past.
“We don’t really see the downside to it,” Araki said. “I don’t see (students) grumbling about it.”
Civil Beat recently asked several Kaimuki students who had just gotten out of summer school classes what they thought about their later start times during the regular school year. Most said they enjoyed the extra hour to sleep in or hang out with friends before school. Some acknowledged that they take advantage of the start time by staying up later at night.
While students get an extra hour before school, Kaimuki teachers still need to get to work by 8 a.m. for staff meetings that used to be in the afternoon. Most teachers are in favor of the 9 a.m. start time and report that their students seem less tired, Araki said.
From a teacher’s standpoint, “You don’t need to come in at 8 and, bam, there they are,” Araki said.
The new schedule hasn’t affected athletic events and practices. Most practices already started around 3:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. because coaches need to get there from their day jobs. Coaches who can make it early hold an hour-long study hall for their student-athletes.
Araki wants to collect at least four years of data to evaluate the effect the 9 a.m. start time has on students before deciding if the schedule change should be made permanent.
Sleepless In The Islands
Araki invited Trevorrow to survey students about their sleep habits and academic performance. It wasn’t a formal study, as Trevorrow and his team of undergraduates distributed the anonymous survey over the course of three school assemblies.
Almost across the board, Kaimuki students reported improved sleep quality with the later start time.
Generally, students in Hawaii and the U.S sleep less as they progress through high school. A Hawaii Health Data Warehouse report from 2015 regarding sleep on school nights revealed that 32 percent of Hawaii’s high school freshmen got at least eight hours of sleep. That number dropped to about 17 percent for seniors. But at Kaimuki, about twice as many students get enough rest compared to other schools in the state and around the mainland.
As for academics, Kaimuki’s juniors, seniors and freshmen reported a slight increase in their grades.
There were some discrepancies within the Kaimuki study with last year’s sophomores, who didn’t report getting more sleep or better grades.
“The relative ‘decrease’ in sleep time most likely reflects a misremembering of the amount of sleep during middle school rather than a consequence of a later school start time,” Trevorrow wrote in an email. “They did report improvement in sleep quality and daytime wakefulness but not grades.”
The islands’ sleepy students may be growing up to be tired adults. Hawaii residents have the worst sleep habits in the nation, according to a 2016 report by the United Health Foundation. It showed that 44 percent of Hawaii residents don’t get the recommended seven hours of sleep for adults, the highest percentage in the U.S.
In addition, Trevorrow says that many Hawaii residents don’t have good quality sleep, although there’s never been a formal study on why people in the islands just can’t seem to hit the hay successfully. He speculates that the state’s high cost of living forces residents to work longer hours or hold multiple jobs.
Another potential factor: traffic. Honolulu consistently ranks in the top 10 of U.S. cities with the worst congestion.
People who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression and lower cognitive function, according to the health department.
Trevorrow said some of his undergraduates wake up early to beat the traffic from West Oahu to Chaminade’s campus in Kaimuki, then they try to catch up on sleep in the parking lot.
“It used to be a badge of courage that you were sleep deprived. In some twisted way, it reflected that you’re a hard worker,” Trevorrow said. “That’s certainly to be appreciated, but it’s not a wise way to navigate your life.”
Read the results for the pilot study of Kaimuki High School students below.
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Blaze Lovell is spending a year as a local investigations fellow with The New York Times. He was previously a reporter for Civil Beat. Born and raised on Oahu, Lovell is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can reach him at email@example.com.