Middle- and high-school students have been starting school later in the morning this academic year, allowing students more time for academic support and extracurricular activities before school. The move was informed by research that has linked delayed start times for older students with improved health. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

When Old Town-area students returned to school after their summer break last year, middle- and high-school students returned to school a half hour later.

Four months later, the delayed start times at Old Town High School and J.A. Leonard Middle School are allowing the schools to offer students more time for academic support from their teachers and extracurricular activities, and more transportation options.

The high school and middle school in Old Town, which serve students from Old Town, Alton and Bradley, pushed their start times from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. at the start of the 2019-20 school year. Administrators had been planning the change for a few years based on research that has linked delayed start times for older students to improved student health.

Only a third of American teenagers reported getting eight hours of sleep every night, according to the American Medical Association, which is less than the 8½ to 9½ hours they need. Plus, teenagers biologically are likely to go to bed and wake up later than children who haven’t hit puberty. So when schools move to later start times, students get more sleep, the American Psychological Association has found.

“As we started looking at the research around high school students starting later, we realized that it could solve a number of other issues,” said David Walker, superintendent of Regional School Unit 34.

The biggest change that the delayed start times led to was the addition of bus routes before and after school, which has allowed more students to participate in before- and after-school activities.

This year, the first bus run of the day — primarily for Old Town Elementary School — brings students to Old Town Elementary School in time for the 7:50 a.m. start. High-school and middle-school students can also choose this bus to go in early for academic support.

From 7:40 a.m. until school starts at 8:30, high school students have access to their teachers for help with homework and catching up with classes, Principal Scott Gordon said.

“A lot of the arguments you get from other schools about pushing the day back is [athletic teams’] practices,” Gordon said. “We’ve lessened that impact a little bit by opening that morning window up for practices.”

The same buses that bring students to school before 8 a.m. do another run to bring middle- and high-school students to school at 8:30 a.m.

Participation in J.A. Leonard Middle School’s after-school program tripled from 30 students to 90 after the school moved it to 7:40 a.m., before school, Principal David Crandall said. About 300 students are enrolled at the middle school, according to Maine Department of Education data.

Students now have time for activities and clubs, such as student council, before their first classes, and can also catch up on homework or make appointments for academic support between 7:40 and 8:30 a.m.

“We always thought we were under-serving our population because they had to find their way home,” Crandall said. “The two bus runs make it so that anyone can come early and get extra help.”

The start times at RSU 34’s three elementary schools did not significantly change, but the addition of a second bus for Old Town Elementary School allowed more students to participate in an hour of after-school programming this year, said Principal Jeanna Tuell.

The elementary school lets out at 2:15 p.m., but about 70 of the school’s 580 students — mostly third, fourth and fifth graders — stay after school for activities and clubs, and take a newly added 3:15 p.m. bus that also picks up middle- and high-school students at the end of their school day.

“There’s no issue of transportation because their parents know they can take the late bus,” Tuell said. “It kind of opened up possibilities, more support for our students, less disruption to their school day, and I’m really surprised with the number of students that are accessing that.”

RSU 34 does not have data yet on how the change has affected academic performance, but Gordon said the delayed school start times and the addition of bus routes appear to have made fewer students late for school.