Give high school sleepyheads a break

The News TribuneMarch 24, 2014 

“Early to bed and early to rise” might have worked for Benjamin Franklin, but it’s an alien concept to most teenagers. Their hormones tend to keep them awake until 11 p.m. or even later – thus they’re biologically inclined to sleep in until almost mid-morning.

That’s fine on weekends, but during the school week it can mean that many of them are not getting enough sleep and aren’t completely awake when class starts.

A growing number of school districts across the country are now acknowledging this biological reality by moving back their starting times for high school, and many others are studying the issue.

Most high schools around here start before 8 a.m. Clover Park schools, for example, begin at 7:25 a.m. and most of Tacoma’s at 7:30. To get to school on time, students may need to rise by 6, even earlier if they have to catch a bus. Little wonder that many of them can hardly stay awake in their first-period classes.

Failing to get enough sleep can have serious consequences for students, including lower standardized testing scores and a greater risk of sports injuries and car accidents. About two-thirds of students don’t get enough sleep, according to a University of Minnesota study. That group had more depression and use of drugs, alcohol and caffeine than students who got enough sleep.

When high school starts later, studies have found that car accidents among students decrease and grades and test scores improve.

So why aren’t all high schools taking notice and changing their hours? One reason is that a later start time means a later end time – and that can be a problem for students who have after-school jobs or extracurricular activities like sports.

Changing start times could also create school transportation headaches. Start times for elementary, middle and high schools are staggered for bus pickup in the morning and afternoon. If start times are flipped, with elementary kids picked up first in the morning instead of high-schoolers, it would mean they’re waiting for the bus in the dark on many winter days.

Still, the research so strongly supports the benefits of a later start time for high school that South Sound educators would be smart to see how other districts were able to make the change. What works best for student performance – not adults’ schedules – should guide districts’ decisions.

All the program enhancements, teacher education and other strategies don’t mean a lot if kids aren’t awake enough to learn.

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