Shifting middle and high school start times to later in the morning as a way to improve student health appears to be gaining momentum in southern Maine, with dozens of school officials, parents and doctors exploring the topic at a regional meeting.

The gathering in Saco on Thursday was designed to educate school leaders about research findings on the impact of start times for secondary education students. Ideally, middle and high schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., studies show.

Fourteen school districts, encompassing Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Bonny Eagle, Biddeford, Kennebunk, Old Orchard Beach and others, were represented at the meeting, with about 75 people attending. Other meetings are expected as advocates for the change organize a regional approach to moving back start times.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend 8:30 a.m. or later school start times, but many Maine high schools begin their classes at 7:30 a.m. or earlier.

Health advocates point to decades of research that credits later start times with helping to prevent obesity, depression, suicide and diabetes. The later start times also have helped prevent sports injuries, improved student test scores and reduced car accidents by teenage drivers. Students who got appropriate rest also were less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, the CDC has reported.

Unlike adults or elementary school students, the brains of pre-teens and teenagers are wired to stay up later and wake up later, which means simply going to bed earlier is not an effective solution.

“They can’t just go to bed earlier. A teenager usually doesn’t get tired and ready for sleep until 10 p.m.,” said Dr. Joan Pelletier, a Saco doctor and parent of a middle school student. Pelletier helped give a presentation and answered questions at Thursday’s meeting.

Requiring a teenager to get up at 6 or 6:30 a.m. for a 7:30 a.m. start time is harmful because it’s counter to the body’s biological clock, she said. For a teenager, 7 a.m. is physiologically equivalent to 4 a.m. for an adult, studies show.

“It’s not just about getting students to school more alert,” said Lloyd Crocker, Old Orchard Beach superintendent. “It’s really a critical health issue we shouldn’t be ignoring. We have the capacity to be making these changes.”

REGIONAL EFFORT GAINS TRACTION

According to a CDC report, Maine’s average high school start time was 7:53 a.m., 10 minutes earlier than the national average of 8:03 a.m. Nationally, at least 200 schools instituted later starting times over the past few years.

School departments in Westbrook, Old Orchard Beach and Cape Elizabeth have pushed back start times in recent years.

But now a regional effort, led by Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray and the Saco chapter of the Start School Later national advocacy group, is gaining traction.

Scarborough Superintendent George Entwistle said there seems to be a “groundswell” of additional support for the concept among local school officials.

“The science behind this is very powerful – indisputable,” Entwistle said. “All of the logistics people talk about can be worked out.”

Tracey Collins, a Saco parent involved with Start School Later, said people who attended the meeting Thursday realized that the issue is not about coddling teenagers, but about public health.

“The questions and discussion about the topic were not about whether this is the right thing to do. It was, ‘How do we do this?'” Collins said. “This is the biggest public health issue that we actually have the power to do something about.”

Scarborough held a school committee meeting about the topic on Oct. 5, and school principals, school board members and Entwistle attended Thursday’s regional meeting. He cautioned, though, that the logistics behind making a change, such as how to figure out new bus and athletic schedules, are daunting.

For instance, altering start times in Scarborough affects 3,000 students spread out over 56 square miles. Entwistle said if most or all southern Maine schools started shifting start times to later in the morning, it would be easier to implement.

STUDENT ATHLETES BETTER OFF

Despite the logistical hurdles, later start times have proven to be noncontroversial once implemented, Westbrook and Old Orchard Beach officials have said.

Crocker, the Old Orchard Beach superintendent, said a survey found that 70 percent of the district’s high school students believe the later start times had a positive effect on their school day since they shifted from 7:30 to 8 a.m. this fall. Crocker said he’s looking at an 8:30 a.m. start time for 2016-17, to align with CDC recommendations.

Parents also were surveyed informally during parent-teacher conferences this week, and no one complained, while many parents remarked at how much more alert their children were heading to school, Crocker said.

Morgan Howlett-Brown, an Old Orchard Beach sophomore, said by the time she’s done with after-school activities and homework, she’s up pretty late. So she appreciates the extra half hour in the morning.

“I like it because I have more time in the morning,” Howlett-Brown said. “Getting up early last year was really hard for me.”

One of the logistical problems is how later start times would affect sports and after-school activities, especially fall and spring sports when available light for practice can be a challenge.

But for sports, research shows that student athletes are much better off when they get enough sleep. A letter signed by 17 Maine sports medicine physicians pointed out that studies show athletes are better at avoiding and recovering from sports injuries when they have adequate sleep.

They also perform better on the field or court.

“Those with adequate sleep have been found to have increased free throw accuracy, faster sprint and reaction times, and better mood,” the letter said.

Ray, the Biddeford superintendent, said that while no additional meetings have yet been scheduled, he believes Thursday’s discussion will spur more meetings and organizing. Collins, the Saco parent with Start School Later, said she was approached to have her group speak at local school board meetings and statewide school conferences.

“We had a great turnout, and it was a good start to the conversation,” Ray said.