WESTBROOK — At 7:50 a.m., the lilting theme song to the 1970s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter” played over the loudspeaker at Westbrook High School, signaling the start of the school day.

While current high school students wouldn’t remember the first bell ringing at any other time than 7:50, Westbrook is on the leading edge of what could be a growing movement to start the middle school and high school day later. The school department shifted its middle school start time from 7:25 a.m. to 7:55 a.m. and the high school’s from 7:30 a.m. to 7:50 a.m. in 2012-13. And Westbrook officials are considering making the start times even later in upcoming years.

Old Orchard Beach switched its starting times this school year from 7:30 to 8 a.m., and other Maine schools soon may follow suit. Some southern Maine educators are talking about organizing a regional approach to start times, and parent groups are urging schools to make start times later. Sleep advocates are talking about scheduling a summit on the topic this fall.

The movement seems to be spurred in part by recommendations for later starting times to improve teens’ health from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Research shows that later start times for schools can fend off depression, obesity and diabetes, improve test scores and reduce tardiness and absenteeism. It can even help athletes recover more quickly from sports injuries. Teens who sleep at least eight hours per night are also less likely to smoke, drink and use drugs, according to the CDC.

“We are starting to view this as a public health issue,” said Dr. Thomas Mellow, a sleep specialist at Maine Medical Center in Portland. “Getting 30 minutes of extra sleep can be a big deal for a lot of kids.”

A still-sleepy Omar Mohammad, a Westbrook junior, began his day in study hall, giving him a chance to wake up. He said he notices how much more alert he is when schools are delayed an hour or two, usually because of a snowstorm.

“I think if we started at 8:30, it would be perfect,” Mohammad said. “When we had school delays last year, I was ready to start the day and start studying right when I got here.”

Another Maine Med sleep specialist, Dr. Christopher Murry, is planning to organize a summit this fall on school start times.

“Attention, focus, memory and cognitive ability are all improved with later start times,” Murry said, pointing to numerous studies on the topic. “And there are fewer teenagers getting in automobile accidents. If you can save lives that way, isn’t reducing automobile accidents enough of a reason on its own to shift the times?”

DAYLIGHT A CONSIDERATION IN MAINE

The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics and numerous studies recommend later start times for secondary education – ideally 8:30 or later. The health benefits to more closely aligning school start times with teens’ natural sleep patterns are undeniable, the research says.

A groundswell of public opinion and research may be starting to nudge school districts to adopt later starting times, even in Maine – the easternmost state in the Eastern time zone – where available light for after-school sports and activities puts a premium on scheduling efficiencies.

Nationwide, hundreds of schools have shifted to later start times.

In Maine, school districts including Cape Elizabeth, Brunswick, Westbrook and Old Orchard Beach have shifted start times to later in the morning over the past several years, touting the health benefits. Portland schools have considered later start times as well, and the school board nixed a proposal to start high school 15 minutes earlier, pointing to the research that says such a change would be detrimental to students’ health.

But still, many Maine high schools start classes at 7:30 a.m. or earlier.

According to a CDC report released in August that surveyed schools across the country, Maine’s average high school start time was 7:53 a.m., 10 minutes earlier than the national average of 8:03 a.m. Also, only 7.5 percent of Maine high schools started at the recommended 8:30 a.m. or later, compared to a national average of 17.7 percent.

Biddeford Schools Superintendent Jeremy Ray hopes to organize a regional discussion this fall among school officials about starting school later.

“Every district needs to make their own decisions, but I do think we need to have a regional conversation,” Ray said.

Meanwhile, parent groups in Saco and South Portland are pushing for later start times, and a bill mandating an 8 a.m. or later start time was introduced in the Maine Legislature this year. It failed when education groups argued against it, not on health grounds, but because they believed that schools should be free to make their own choices.

“It’s getting really hard to ignore the data and the research,” said Tracey Collins, a Saco parent who is lobbying for later start times for Saco Middle School by organizing a local chapter of Start School Later, a nonprofit advocacy group. “I’m tired of hearing all the excuses of why we can’t do this, but it’s not going to change until we as a society say it’s not OK to do this anymore.”

Lloyd Crocker, superintendent of RSU 23, which includes Old Orchard Beach High School, said the research is “compelling” that schools need to shift to later starting times, and he’s looking at moving the clock forward another 30 minutes for an 8:30 a.m. start for grades six to 12 in the 2016-17 school year.

Crocker said an 8:30 a.m. start would be among the latest for a public high school in southern Maine.

“Public education is still stuck in the old model of doing things, and people get comfortable with that,” Crocker said. “We get stuck into continuing what’s convenient rather than what’s best.”

Crocker said the 8 a.m. start time is an improvement, but not the full solution.

“I realize that it’s a good first step, but we did not take it far enough,” said Crocker, who plans to host forums on the topic this fall.

‘EXPONENTIAL’ CHANGE EXPECTED

Nationally, at least 200 schools instituted later starting times over the past few years, according to Start School Later.

“Now that the CDC and the pediatricians have come out in favor, we should see exponential growth in schools doing this,” said Stacy Simera, outreach coordinator for the nonprofit advocacy group.

But in Maine, where tradition and a location in the far eastern reaches of the time zone limit available after-school daylight for sports and other activities, just getting classes to start at 8 a.m. and not 7:20 is a challenge for many schools.

“It’s a massive organizational effort,” said Ray, the Biddeford superintendent, who was involved in the planning for Westbrook when he was an administrator there before taking the Biddeford post. “But it’s the right thing to do for kids.”

Aside from sports, other challenges to later start times include busing and parent work schedules. Ray said having a before-school “morning care” program for parents who need to get to work early is key.

Westbrook Superintendent Marc Gousse would like to incrementally shift the starting times even later, because the research proving medical benefits is so sound.

“If I could wave my magic wand, we would change it to be later than it is now,” Gousse said. But the logistics of everything from bus schedules to after-school activities to parent work schedules make change difficult, he said.

“It sounds simple to shift start times by half an hour. But everything you do has this cascading effect,” Gousse said. “We had a yearlong conversation about this.”

In South Portland, where the high school bell rings at 7:30 a.m., new superintendent Ken Kunin met with parents lobbying for a later start time. But he said that since he just started the job on Aug. 1, he’s not ready to draw any conclusions about what should be done. Kunin said it’s an issue that the community should talk about.

TEENS’ CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS

John Heffernan, a South Portland teacher and parent who is lobbying for later start times, said the science is indisputable, and it’s time to prioritize shifting to later start times.

Even modest changes like those made at Westbrook are helpful, according to Simera, of Start School Later.

“The research shows that every 20 minutes later you start school has some benefits to the students,” Simera said.

Mellow, the Maine Med sleep expert, said people assume teenagers could simply go to bed earlier and get up earlier. But while adults could shift sleep times, a teen’s brain cannot adjust as easily.

“A teen’s circadian rhythms will make the teen want to go to bed later and get up later,” Mellow said. That’s why in the summertime, teens will often go to bed at 11 p.m. or midnight and wake up at 10 a.m., he said.

For a teen’s brain, 7 a.m. is roughly equivalent to 4 a.m. for an adult, he said.

“The research looked at what happens when school starts later, and the kids do not go to bed later, as one might think,” Mellow said. Instead, they tend to go to bed around the same time, when their body’s biological clock tells them to, usually around 10 or 11 p.m.

So, when schools start later, the teens are getting more sleep, which is better for their health.

When teens are sleep-deprived, they may still function adequately at the beginning of the week, but by the end of the week they are usually dragging, not as alert and not doing as well in school.

“There’s a cumulative cost to not getting enough sleep,” Mellow said.

Murry said many common disorders – such as attention deficit disorder – can be greatly alleviated simply by going to bed at the right time and getting enough sleep.

Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, introduced a bill this past spring to mandate 8 a.m. or later starting times, but it failed because schools did not want to give up the autonomy of making their own decisions.

“We are setting our kids up for failure,” Daughtry said. She intends to reintroduce the bill and is willing to modify it to accommodate the varying challenges districts face.

For instance, in rural districts, transportation is an even bigger issue, as children are riding the bus for 45 minutes or longer to get to school. Later starting times are even more of a logistical challenge for large districts.

Also, some schools send their students to regional vocational schools, so when a school changes its starting time, it affects other schools, too. That’s why a regional approach would be best, Ray said.

Molly Sweet, 16, a Westbrook junior, said when the school made the start times later when she was in middle school, it didn’t affect her, but she noticed how other students were less tired.

“Before, a lot of my friends were tired at the start of the day, and a lot of people were late to school,” Sweet said.

Jon Ross, Westbrook High School principal, tried to energize students at 7:50 a.m., cheerily greeting them as they changed classes, directing lost freshmen down the correct hallways. He sees the juggling act firsthand, how schedules are compressed when the school day starts later. Now, there’s less time when the school day ends and after-school activities begin, which can make students late for practice if they need to consult with a teacher. Sometimes, the school has to dismiss teams early so they can travel to their games.

But Ross said ultimately, schools should make changes to benefit students.

“I don’t know why we go through all this effort to get kids out of bed and here by 7:45 a.m. It doesn’t make any sense,” Ross said.