top of the morning

One way to boost test scores? Make sure students get morning sunshine, new research shows

When teens complain that school starts too early, they’re not wrong, according to new research.

This comes as school districts across the country — including in Colorado, California, Indiana, and Tennessee — consider starting school later.

The study, published last month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, looks at districts in Florida and uses a novel approach: the fact that some areas in the state operate in the central time zone while others use eastern time. That means that if one district starts school at 8 a.m. Eastern and one right next door starts at 8 a.m. Central, students are actually heading to school at different times, relative to the sunrise — creating a natural experiment for the researchers to study how that affects student achievement.

Study authors Jennifer Heissel and Samuel Norris of Northwestern followed students who move between schools in different time zones; they expected that students going from Eastern Time to Central Time will see their test scores improve because they get more sunlight prior to school.

In fact, that’s exactly what they found, particularly for older students. When an older student moved to a district that starts school later, their standardized test scores improved in the year they move and in later years. The effects are notable, but not huge: roughly equivalent to the impact of a substantial reduction in class size.

The research finds that is driven by the changes in ideal sleep patterns caused by entering puberty. That means girls are negatively impacted by late start times starting around age 11, and boys at age 13.

PHOTO: Ntl. Center for Education Statistics

The study posits a straightforward way to improve student achievement without changing a district’s average start time: ensuring that a district’s high schools start the latest and elementary schools the earliest. Most Florida districts examined don’t do that, but if they did, the researchers estimate that it would improve average test scores.

Those results are consistent with past research, which has driven past efforts to start school later. As the authors point out, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting high school no earlier than 8:30 a.m., but as of 2012, the average start time for an American high schools was 7:59, with the vast majority beginning before 8:30.

One Colorado school district, Cherry Creek, currently starts at 9 a.m. for elementary school, 8 a.m. for middle school, and 7 a.m. for high school — precisely the opposite order that the research would suggest is ideal for improving achievement. The district just approved a move that would start elementary school earlier and middle and high school later.

When schools try to change start times, though, they run into logistical challenges: parents’ work schedules, sports event timing, bus coordination, and before- and after-school activities.

Indeed, the change in Cherry Creek garnered protest from parents, although an online survey of students and staff showed support for the changes, according to the district.

“If the new start time is adopted, young children will be waiting at the bus stops or walking to school in the dark/dawn during some months of the year,” according to a Change.org petition opposing the change. “This is unsafe for our young children.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Cherry Creek was considering a change to its start times. That change has been approved.

Poverty in America

Woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant Memphis schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 860 Memphis students were considered homeless in 2016, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.