School Start Time Conference - Session 13:

Changing School Start Times: 
Perspectives from the Trenches
Sandy Evans,
Darrel Drobnich,
Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD

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The most important aspect of the presentations for me was that I now feel better prepared to encourage school leadership to take action on school start times.
— Community advocate

Sandy Evans, Chair, Fairfax County VA Board of Education
Darrel Drobnich, President, MidAmr Group
Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Start School Later, Inc

This panel presentation addressed the “nuts and bolts” challenges of changing school start times from three different perspectives.  Ms. Sandy Evans is the Chair of the Fairfax County School Board in Fairfax, VA and led the successful effort of that school district in changing to later school start times.  Darrel Drobnich, President of MidAmr Group and former Chief Program Officer of the National Sleep Foundation, has advised school districts on successfully implementing school start times changes.  Terra Ziporyn Snider is the Co-Founder of Start School Later, Inc., a nonprofit organization, with 101 chapters in 27 states and Washington D.C., dedicated to increasing public awareness about the relationship between adolescent sleep and school start times. 

The Fairfax County School District Case Study:  With 188,000 students, Fairfax County School District is the 10th largest school district in the United States and it has the largest school bus fleet in the country with 1,640 buses.  In 2015, Fairfax County School District moved to later school start times to provide middle school and high school students the opportunity to get more sleep.  Ms Sandra Evans was the Chair of the School Board that led the change.

Ms. Evans presents the step-by-step approach taken in Fairfax to change school start times.  She emphasizes the important role the Board of Education plays in establishing clearly the policy goal of changing school start times as an important student health priority, and then to have a capable school administration leadership team committed to pursue that goal.   At that point, the focus of the initiative can move from “WHETHER to change to HOW to change.” She discusses the process by which Fairfax County School Board hired consultants to develop alternative plans for implementation and the importance of engaging school stakeholders early in the planning process to both educate them on the health issue and to take their interests into account prior to finalizing a plan.

Getting to YES:  Mr. Drobnich discusses the strategy for “Getting to YES” on a policy to change school start times.  He argues that having an overwhelming scientific rationale for changing school start times is not sufficient for the change to be made.  Rather, advocates need to engage with school stakeholders, particularly school board members and superintendents, and seek to understand and address any objections they may have.  The goal is to move them from to “No” to “Maybe” to “Yes” over time.  In this context, changing school start times sometimes needs to become an important school board election issue. 

With a committed leadership team in place, the focus can be on how best to implement the change.  At this stage, the exercise involves developing alternative scenarios and to elicit feedback from school stakeholders to iterate to the best overall solution.  The emphasis in this stage should be to ask people identifying problems to also suggest possible solutions so as to keep the dialogue constructive and moving forward.  Mr. Drobnich emphasizes the difficulty of asking the same people who created the status quo to change the status quo, and argues that having an independent consultant or an appointed change agent to spearhead the process is important.

Building Political Will:  With a bird’s eye view of the school start-time change movement in over 100 Start School Later chapters throughout the United States, Terra Ziporyn Snider, the Co-Founder of Start School Later Inc., highlights three underlying obstacles that stand in the way of changing school start times: (1) the bias of the status quo; (2) the failure of creativity and imagination to envision new possibilities and to solve problems; (3) a pervasive ignorance about the importance of sleep to adolescent health. 

Dr. Ziporyn Snider observes that school districts that have overcome these obstacles have one thing in common:  the political will to explicitly prioritize health and learning and to find creative and affordable ways to make the change.

Turning to how to build political will, Dr. Ziporyn Snider explains that the goal is to correctly reframe the issue as a critical matter of public health instead of one focused on inconvenience, logistics and expense.   She  makes the case for a multi-level approach by a diversity of players who work together on a local, state and national level. The players would include health organizations, health professionals, civic organizations, sleep researchers, parent and student advocates, school policy makers and teachers, and legislators, all working to share resources and augment one another’s efforts. This team effort on a national level is made possible by the reach and leverage of social media.

Sandy Evans
Sandy Evans is a Fairfax County School Board member representing Mason District, and currently serves as Chair of the School Board.  A journalist by profession, she is a former reporter and staff writer for The Washington Post. In 2004, she and Phyllis Payne co-founded Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP), a grassroots group created to advocate for later middle and high school start times in Fairfax County, VA. Ms. Evans has a bachelor of science in journalism from the  University of Maryland-College Park. Before being elected to the School Board in March 2010 in a special election, Evans had served on the Board’s School Health Advisory Committee (chairman) and Transportation Task Force; Northern Virginia Healthy Kids Coalition (steering committee member); Fairfax Education Coalition (founding member); Fairfax County Council of PTAs (legislation committee chairman); and Sleepy Hollow Elementary School PTA (former PTA president). She was reelected to four-year terms on the School Board in 2011 and 2015, with her current term ending in December 2019. She is married to attorney Steven K. Hoffman and has two daughters.

Darrel Drobnich
Darrel Drobnich is a president of the MidAmr Group, a consulting firm in Washington, DC, and has over 25 years of experience translating scientific findings into public health messages, educational programs, public policy, and advocacy initiatives in both the U.S. Senate and the non-profit sector. As former Chief Program Officer of the National Sleep Foundation (NSF),  he created and oversaw public policy initiatives and award-winning national public awareness and research programs, bringing the issue of adolescent sleep and starting a national conversation on the issue. In 1998, he formed a partnership with Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) to introduce a Congressional resolution (H.C. Res. 135 or “Z’s to A’s,”) to encourage schools to move start times to no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Most recently, Mr. Drobnich helped lead a multi-disciplinary team to overturn 20 years of failed attempts to change unhealthy school start times for 57,000 high students in Fairfax County Public Schools, VA, the 10th largest school system in the country and is currently consulting with York County School Division in Virginia.

Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD
Terra Ziporyn Snider is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Start School Later, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing public awareness about the relationship between sleep and school hours and to ensuring school start times compatible with health, safety, education, and equity. An award-winning author of numerous popular health and medical books including The New Harvard Guide to Women's HealthThe Women's Concise Guide to Emotional Well-BeingAlternative Medicine for Dummies, and Nameless Diseases, she was an associate editor at The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and has written extensively on a wide range of health and medical issues in publications including The Harvard Health LetterJAMAThe Huffington PostConsumer ReportsWeight Watchers Magazine, and Business Week. Dr. Snider is a graduate of Yale College and a former Searle Fellow at the University of Chicago, where she earned a doctorate in the history of science and medicine. She has been awarded science-writing fellowships by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, and the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.