The beach ball landed with a soft thud on the desk next to me, taking several parents by surprise. "This is how I keep your students engaged during first period," said the enthusiastic Spanish teacher at my first high-school back-to-school night eight years ago. Recognizing that her students, who started class at 7:25 a.m., were often drowsy, this teacher used a beach ball "to keep the kids alert and lighten things up."
While the science surrounding teen sleep had not been widely publicized in 2005 when my oldest began high school in Montgomery County, signs of adolescent sleep deprivation were evident. The culprits-researchers, physicians and educators now agree-are not lazy kids and bad parenting but a chemically induced change in teens' biological clocks and school clocks that don't accommodate the change.
Delaying High-School Start Times Makes Sense
Nine hours a night is a good rule of thumb when it comes to teens and sleep. The problem is that "most teenagers can't fall asleep much before 11 p.m.," says Judith Owens, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "When you do the math, you can see why starting [high] school later makes sense."
With the onset of puberty comes a "shift in circadian rhythms, a one- to two-hour delay in natural sleep onset," says Owens. It is the presence of melatonin, a hormone secreted by a gland at the base of the brain, that makes us drowsy, signaling bed time. In younger children, melatonin appears between 8 and 9 p.m. By adolescence, it's closer to 11 p.m.
Melatonin circulates in the teen body until 8 a.m., around the end of first period at many area high schools. That's why "asking a kid to get up at 6 a.m. is like asking an adult to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning," says Sandy Evans, a member of the Fairfax County School Board and co-founder of the Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP). Last spring, the board passed a resolution to push back high school start times, currently as early as 7:20 a.m., to 8 a.m. or later. Plans to hire a consultant "to help guide us through this change have slipped a little bit," Evans says. But the board remains committed to "engaging the community, exploring all the options and finding the best approach for making this positive change."
A grassroots effort to delay high school start times at Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has led to the creation of a superintendent's task force charged with "developing options for high school bell times," says Mandi Mader. The parent of two MCPS students and a clinical social worker, Mader established an online petition in October, which had garnered more than 10,200 signatures by the end of 2012, advocating for start times no earlier than 8:15 a.m.
This isn't the first time that Montgomery and Fairfax have considered later start times for high schools. Fairfax studied the issue in the late '80s and
'90s, and again in 2009. "The last time we tried to do this, staff came up with a plan called Iteration #3 that was not well received," says Evans. "The
problem was with the plan, not the idea of later high-school start times."
In 1998, a MCPS work group released a 100-page report evaluating 15 different options, with increased annual costs ranging from nothing to $31.7 million. In the end, the school system could not reconcile start time preferences with the economics of bus transportation.
Safety and Budget Concerns
Bus transportation-in terms of budgetary impact and student safety-carries a lot of weight, according to MCPS Board of Education member Michael A. Durso. "We stagger start times for elementary, middle and high schools in order to get three trips out of every bus both ways," he says. "That cuts down on what already is a hefty expense."
To maximize the use of buses, a change in high school start times necessitates a change at middle and/or elementary schools. While elementary students might be more physiologically capable of attending school early, Durso expresses concern about having them stand, sometimes on rural roads without lights or sidewalks, in the dark waiting for a school bus. "I'd be reluctant to put an elementary school student out there early under those conditions so that teens can sleep a little later."
Another option is to purchase more buses and hire additional drivers. That, historically, has been a deal breaker.
Elsewhere in the Metro Area … And Beyond
That's not to say transportation issues are insurmountable. "Arlington [County] did it very smoothly in 2001," said Evans. "They brought several possibilities to the community, which were followed by extensive public engagement, before they came up with a hybrid approach based on feedback." Three of Arlington's four high schools now start at 8:19 a.m. H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program, which draws students from across the school district, begins classes at 9:24 a.m.
High schools in the District of Columbia, most of which begin class at 8:45 a.m., have a history of later start times. In Loudoun County, classes get underway at 9 a.m., except at the science and technology academies, which start around 9:30 a.m. First period in Prince George's County varies by high school, beginning as early as 7:45 a.m. or as late as 9:30 a.m.
Transportation is not the only concern in school districts considering later high-school start times. Extracurricular activities, both school sponsored and community based; student jobs; and before- and after-school child care must conform to school bell schedules.
In districts that have adopted later high-school start times, "the community-its employers, businesses and institutions-have adapted," says Terra Ziporyn Snider, founder of Start School Later, an Annapolis-based group with chapters in Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties. Change, she admits, "can be uncomfortable for many, so the debate can get very emotional … but there are excellent examples from schools across the country" that have successfully appeased community concerns over later start times.
Mader points to school districts in Texas, where a 9 a.m. start time is common and sports teams often practice before school. "Yes, it can be a little inconvenient for some but it benefits many more," she says. "Let's say 40 percent of kids participate in sports, perhaps one or two a year. While they have to get up early sometimes, they still get a chance to sleep in [during the off-season], along with the other 60 percent" of the student body. Other schools have invested in lights, a less costly alternative to expanding the bus fleet, so that athletes can practice outdoors in the late fall and early spring.
Child Care Concerns
Child care, at least in Durso's mind, is more problematic. Under the current MCPS bell schedules, high schools let out first-about 30 minutes before middle schools and an hour before elementary schools. Durso has little doubt that child care providers-whether commercial, nonprofit or in-home-would accommodate a change in elementary school start times but, he wonders, "What do we do about those who rely on older siblings to be home when their younger brothers and sisters arrive?"
"We need to make sure there is support for lower-income parents who depend on older kids for child care," Mader says. "This county has a lot of smart, creative people who can help figure this out. … We do not want this change [to later high-school start times] to harm any group of children."
Early Start Times Affect Long-Term Health and Safety
Given all the logistical concerns and the fact that public schools in Montgomery and Fairfax counties are among the nation's top performing, why jump through all these hoops just to give teens a little more shut-eye? "The evidence is pretty irrefutable. Early start times are detrimental to the mental and physical health of teens and may have a significant impact on their long-term health, not to mention safety," says Owens.
Insufficient sleep impairs the immune system, so we're less able to fight off colds, flu and other ailments, according Helene Emsellem, M.D., medical director for The Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase. Learning is affected, as sick teens miss school and those feeling under the weather struggle to stay focused in class.
"Sleep deprivation is fuel for acne and a contributing factor in the obesity epidemic. Adequate sleep is imperative for caloric balance, adequate metabolism and normal growth," says Emsellem.
A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that almost 70 percent of high school students get less than eight hours of sleep on school nights. It found a correlation between insufficient sleep and 10 "health-risk behaviors," including cigarette, alcohol and marijuana use, less than an hour of daily physical activity, drinking soda daily, three or more hours of computer use, sexual activity, physical fighting, feeling sad or hopeless, and seriously contemplating suicide.
The link between the contemplation of suicide, third on the CDC's list of leading causes of death in children 12 to19, and sleep deprivation should be taken seriously, advises Emsellem. "There can be terrible impacts on mood among kids who don't get enough sleep," she says.
Lack of sleep also contributes to vehicular accidents. "It's a double whammy," says Emsellem. "We have kids who don't have a lot of experience behind the wheel driving around sleep deprived." There are studies showing a reduction in car accidents when high-school start times are delayed.
Accidents on the playing field can be exacerbated by sleep deficits. "All of us, even athletes, are more clumsy, klutzy and uncoordinated when we don't get enough sleep," she says.
Sleep deprivation adversely effects attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning and problem-solving, making learning less efficient and homework take longer to complete. Because it can impact the brain's executive functions, judgment can be impaired, according to Owens.
Adequate Shut-Eye Enhances Learning
Adequate shut-eye, on the other hand, enhances learning. As we sleep, our brains consolidate and practice what is learned during the day "whether it's a historical sequence, how to solve a math problem or steps needed to dribble a ball down court and get it in the net," says Emsellem.
That said, don't expect later high school start times to significantly increase student GPAs, cautions Emsellem. Grades in first period classes rose slightly in Arlington County, according to a 2005 report, after the school district pushed back high-school start times by 45 minutes. At the same time, first period grades for middle school students dropped slightly when they had to start classes 20 minutes earlier to accommodate the later high school start time.
What parents can expect from a later bell schedule is a decrease in high school dropout and truancy rates and increased numbers of graduates. That equates to a $17,500 increase in lifetime earnings per student, a 9:1 benefit-to-cost ratio, according to a 2011 report by the Brookings Institution.
"There's no question that later [high school] start times pose significant challenges and barriers," says Owens, "but this is something within our control, something we can change to make a significant impact on the long-term health of children." She suggests people think about it this way: "If you knew that in your child's school there was a toxic substance that reduced the capacity to learn, increased the chances of a car crash and made it likely that 20 years from now he would be obese and suffer from hypertension, you'd do everything possible to get rid of that substance and not worry about cost. Early start times are toxic."
At press time, a bill was introduced in the Maryland General Assembly that would establish a task force to study the issue of later school start times, with a recommendation due to the governor by year's end.
Karen Finucan Clarkson is a Bethesda writer with two high school grads who are glad they no longer have to rise before the sun and a middle school student who is preparing for a 7:25 a.m. start time next year.