High school students

Innovative Program in Alabama Allows Students More Sleep, Upends Debate on School Start Times

Thanks to a virtual first period, high school students in Piedmont have more autonomy when it comes to making sure they get enough sleep.

A virtual first period for high schoolers in the Piedmont City School District in Alabama is using technology to help students get much needed extra sleep—and become more independent learners—without altering the daily school schedule. The small, rural district started the program, which allows students to complete first period classwork on their own schedules, two years ago after positive results using Middlebury Interactive Languages' digital courses.

"The success of the Middlebury Interactive program was a real eye-opener for us on the potential for digital learning," said Piedmont Superintendent Matt Akin. "Expanding the virtual first period to include other subjects has allowed students to get more sleep, and our new self-paced and mastery-based learning approach has benefitted students and teachers."

Research has shown that students who get the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep per night are healthier and perform better academically than their sleep-deprived peers. On the flip side, too many students don't get enough sleep, leading to struggles in and out of school. These sleep-deprived students have been described as "zombies" and "brain dead" by researchers at the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Across the country, school districts are debating shifting school start times -- which on average occur at 8:03 a.m. -- to provide older students with more sleep. However, delaying the start time has proven challenging to many districts due to transportation concerns and conflicts with students' work schedules and extracurricular activities.

"Lack of sleep is a quiet crisis in American education, with effects that put students' futures at risk," said Middlebury Interactive CEO Jane Swift. "Piedmont took an innovative approach to helping students get more sleep but also become more self-directed, independent leaders. There are many lessons in the Piedmont approach for school districts across the country."

Piedmont turned to Middlebury Interactive after the district's only full-time Spanish teacher left and the district struggled to find a replacement. Through Middlebury Interactive's blended learning curriculum, Piedmont not only saved its Spanish program but also expanded its offerings to provide students access to Chinese, French, German and Latin for the first time. The students are developing a world view that they might not have not found otherwise in a rural school district.

"Middlebury Interactive is broadening the horizons of our students," said Superintendent Akin. "They have a stronger background now, not only in learning new languages, but in learning new cultures too."

Teachers have also noticed that the integration of technology in the classroom through Middlebury Interactive and the other new digital programs has helped students become more independent learners and has changed the learning culture of the school. 

"The dynamics of my classroom have changed drastically," said Piedmont teacher Jennie Baer. "Students have a higher level of accountability when it comes to their progress. They also have the flexibility to work at their own pace and can focus on what is important on a particular day. This is an advantage that students in traditional high schools do not have."

The virtual first period program has been very popular for Piedmont students, who if they drop below a B-grade average must report to first period in person. Ninety-five percent of Piedmont's upperclassman students are expected to participate in the program this fall. The district reports that some students complete the digital assignments at home or using school computers during the first period block, while others finish their work in the afternoons or evenings. 

"Through learning online, I am able to go at my own pace, which allows me to get a better understanding of more difficult lessons," said Piedmont High School student Chloe Mobley. "By learning a language this way, I feel I am becoming more self-disciplined."