High school students are wired to stay up late and sleep in later.
As another school year opens across the country, why on earth do 86 percent of the nation’s high schools start before 8:30 a.m., making it nearly impossible for teenagers to get the minimum eight-and-a-half hours of sleep their bodies crave?
There are lots of reasons, none having much to do with students’ welfare.
Coaches, as well as many teachers and parents, like the crack-of-dawn schedule. It allows sports practices to end earlier, teens to be home to care for younger kids, and teachers to beat the traffic.
Bus schedules for entire districts, including later-starting elementary schools, are built around these early opening bells. The status quo is hard to change.
Yet a small but growing number of systems — from Jackson Hole, Wyo., to Ocala, Fla. — have pushed back high school start times. More districts are debating the change, often noisily and at length. In Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside the nation’s capital, the debate has been going on for more than five years.
It shouldn’t be this hard: The medical evidence is overwhelming that starting the school day later is the right thing to do. On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics added its potent voice to the push for later start times, calling it a public health issue.
Insufficient sleep is an epidemic: The average teen is chronically sleep deprived and suffering from some of the same symptoms as adults with serious sleep disorders, according to the group’s report. Biologically, it is difficult for teenagers to fall asleep before 11 p.m. and wake up before 8 a.m.
Sleepy teens are more prone to be tardy, absent, moody, inattentive and less able to learn. That list alone is quite an argument for change.
At least 1,000 high schools have pushed back start times, according to Judith Owens, a physician, sleep expert and lead author of the academy’s report. But the nation has more than 18,000 public high schools, and the average start time remains 7:59 a.m.
Often, the biggest obstacle is transportation. The same buses are used to pick up children at staggered times for all grades. Many districts have solved the issue by flipping elementary and high school opening bells. This provides twin benefits: Children in elementary school tend to go to bed earlier and rise earlier.
Opponents of later start times say: Show us the benefits.
Healthwise, it’s a no-brainer. But that’s not all. Evidence of improved academic performance is also mounting.
A University of Minnesota study this year — involving schools in a range of districts near Minneapolis and St. Paul; in Boulder, Colo.; and in Teton County, Wyoming — found educational and safety benefits. These include less tardiness, higher grade-point averages in morning classes and fewer teen car crashes.
“Students come ready to learn … and take on the activities of the day,” says Principal Jayne Ellspermann in Ocala, where high school start times were pushed back by two hours in 2002.
Even if the only benefit is healthier, more attentive teens, isn’t that enough to make school boards wake up and ring the opening bell at a smarter hour?
— LIVINGSTON COUNTY PRESS AND ARGUS