Later high-school start times would elevate performance, morale, quality of education
Every morning, 3,000 students plod toward their morning classes. Eyes half-open, they find their seats and begin a 90-minute struggle to stay awake. Desks become pillows as many tune out and drift off into the dreamland that was cut short by their 6 a.m. alarms. Blazers are dozing through their education, and no one seems to care enough to fix the problem.
Sleep deprivation hampers 85 percent of all high-school students according to a 1998 study by psychologists Amy Wolfson and Mary Carskadon. For years, adolescents have fought against their natural sleep cycles to adapt to early school start times, and the educational effects have been disastrous.
It wasn't until students began to demand more sleep that things began to change.
Minnesota hits the snooze
That change came in 1996, when parents in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, realized the damaging effects of sleep deprivation. Acting on advice from the state medical association, the district decided to push back the opening of high schools from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.
The Minneapolis school district followed Edina the next year, changing start times from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. Subsequent research by the University of Minnesota confirmed what many had long believed: Rested students are better students.
In 2001, researchers found that the number of continuously enrolled freshmen in Minneapolis high schools increased by eight percent, while the number of continuously enrolled sophomores spiked 12 percent.
A more concentrated study by the University of Minnesota concluded that the better-rested students in Minneapolis showed fewer symptoms of depression and tended to behave better.
The study convinced other school districts that they could also successfully implement similar changes. In 2001, Arlington Public Schools decided on a similar course of action, changing high school start times from 7:30 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. A recent push has been made in Anne Arundel County to begin high schools at 8 a.m. instead of the current 7:17 a.m. start time. Even Montgomery County has its own parent group dedicated to lobbying for earlier school start times, aptly named "Wake Up!"
Sleep deprivation 101
The interest in changing high-school start times stems from data suggesting that teenagers are the most sleep-deprived age bracket in the country. According to Wolfson and Carskadon, adolescents require 9.2 hours of sleep per night. In contrast, the average 16-year-old receives just 7.5 hours on a weeknight.
Also, sleep experts agree that no matter how fatigued adolescents are, their biological clocks do not begin to go into sleep mode until 11 p.m. The teenage body also remains in sleep mode until at least 8 a.m., making morning classes a struggle even for well-rested high-school students.
As far as performance is concerned, Wolfson and Carskadon found that students getting As and Bs received 30 more minutes of sleep per night than those with lower grades, as tired students often lose focus and interest in school, opting instead to skip classes or drop out altogether.
Taking back the morning
However, despite overwhelming medical evidence, many maintain that moving back start times creates more problems than it solves. Opponents of later start times say that extending the school day later into the afternoon will disrupt the after-school schedules of teens who play sports or have jobs and force bus schedules to accommodate later start times.
However, Arlington County showed that smart scheduling can alleviate any potential busing woes. When proposing a change in school start times, Arlington County created three alternative schedules, none of which required more than the 107 bus drivers already needed for the school district.
Even if more drivers are required, the health and well-being of the students should be the primary concern in a public school system. Montgomery County is flush with resources, and money spent on changing start times would have a tangibly positive effect on high-school students. The current unnatural sleep cycles of high-school students are not optimal for an educational environment and, more importantly, are not healthy for adolescents.
It is foolish for any school system to expect students to perform to the best of their abilities when they are battling their bodies. If we value public education, we should wake up and let students sleep in.
Avi Wolfman-Arent. Avi Wolfman-Arent has been called many things: super genius, mega hunk and an all around cool guy; but through the praise he has remained down-to-earth and humble. At a muscular five feet nine inches he may seem intimidating when striding down Blair Boulevard, but when … More »