Why So Early? School Start Times and Suburban Sprawl

The advent of sprawl coincided with a move toward earlier school start times, prompted by a need to coordinate complicated bussing. If students could walk to school, the problem might disappear.

April 6, 2017, 5:00 AM PDT

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc


It's hard to believe as a younger person, but before mass suburbanization school used to start at 9 a.m. or later. That isn't the case today. Mimi Kirk writes, "according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 75 percent of schools surveyed in more than 40 states for a 2015 report started before 8:30 a.m., with a significant number starting in the 7 a.m. hour."

Why the change? Kirk traces it to the 1960s and 1970s, when sprawl began to make walking to school difficult. Cultural changes around childrearing also discouraged walking. The result, a tiered bus schedule, imposed early start times for high schoolers. As driving became the norm, so did an early start.

Kirk discusses how the 7:30 a.m. start may cut into young people's sleep needs. "That research, which recently led both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics to urge later start times at American schools, shows that teenagers need at least nine hours of sleep a night."

A movement to push back school start times is picking up speed, but faces its share of debate. Long-term, a common sense solution to the problem would be to re-enable walks to school. But that would require walkable communities, and encouraging those can be an uphill climb both ways. 

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