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Sports have always been important for Jeremy Ray, the superintendent of the school districts in Biddeford and Dayton, Maine. Early in his career he worked as a basketball official, before spending three years as a P.E. teacher and one as a middle-school athletic director.* Now, his office in Biddeford is decorated with Red Sox memorabilia.
But Ray is also well-read on school start-time research, and when Tracey Collins, head of the Start School Later chapter in southern Maine, reached out to him in late 2015 about moving his high school’s first bell, he was immediately onboard. The more he learned about start-time research, the more convinced he was that Biddeford High School’s 7:45 start was far too early.
“The science and the evidence is so clear, that if I did nothing at all and just continued on with the same start times, I was hurting kids,” Ray recently told me.
So Ray and Collins began a meticulous outreach campaign. They presented the science to the local school board, hosted a meeting of board members from around the region, held public forums and spoke personally with opponents.
Ray knew that support—or at least tolerance—from the sports community would go a long way toward making a change. So he asked Biddeford’s athletic director, Dennis Walton, to map out a full school year of delayed start times and determine if there’d be time for practice and how often athletes would need to be dismissed from school early.
Walton’s finding: The athletic department would have little trouble adjusting to a new schedule. Teams would still be able to practice before the sun went down, and only rarely would students have to leave a few minutes before the final bell to get to games and meets.
Coaches had some questions, but Walton assured them their seasons would proceed, more or less, as usual. Ray spoke to Biddeford’s football coach, explaining the link between sleep deprivation and athletic injuries, and convinced him that sacrificing a few minutes of practice was more than worthwhile.
Angry opposition to delayed start times in Biddeford never emerged, and neighboring towns joined the movement. On April 6, 2016, school boards in Biddeford, Dayton, and Saco—which share a Career and Technical Education school and therefore coordinate all scheduling—together voted to push back their opening bells.
The new schedule took effect in August, and though it’s too early to fully analyze the effect of later start times, the change has so far corresponded with increased attendance, decreased tardiness, and fewer visits to the nurse’s office.
Walton, the Biddeford athletic director, often hears from colleagues in other districts who are curious about delayed start times. His message to them is simple.
“It’s like anything else: You adjust,” Walton said. “And if what we’re being told is that academically kids are going to benefit across the board from later starts, then I think that you have to say that takes precedence over the extra 20 minutes of practice time.”