High school start times: Research says 7 a.m. is too early

Last week marked a transition for my family when our two teenage boys started high school. Daniel headed to nearby Thomas Dale High School in Chester, VA. At the same time, David started his classes at the Virginia Governor’s School for Engineering Studies at Bird High School about 8 miles away from my house.

Both freshmen need to be in their homeroom class in time for the first warning bell: at 7:15 a.m. I can barely function that early in the morning, and I’m not suffering from the biological changes that occur in my adolescent teenagers of ages 14 and 15.

I’m admittedly a biased member of the academic research community who likes, shares, comments, and re-tweets research advocating later start times to area high schools. Among the most vocal advocates of the local change are the Start School Later Chesterfield Facebook authors, one of whom is a clinical psychologist. I publicly support their cause because it’s rooted in sound research and the right thing to do for area youth, including my two teenagers.

Youth not getting enough sleep is a national cause for concern, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Teenagers need about 9.25 hours of sleep each night, but they average less than 7 hours of sleep on school days. The problems experienced by teenagers, according to the 1998 Wolfson and Carskadon study cited by the foundation, include bad habits, excessive homework, overscheduled family demands, electronic distractions—and societal demands, specifically early school start times.

What are the consequences of early start times to high schools?

Distracted driving is one, according to an organization cited by the National Sleep Foundation. Before the first bell rang on the first day of high school, I observed a teenager who appeared to cause a fender-bender that backed up traffic for miles right in front of Thomas Dale High School on Route 10 in Chester.

“Unfortunately, teens who do not get enough sleep are more likely not to exercise and to be involved in harmful behaviors such as using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco,” according to the Centers for Disease Control, which reviewed data from a national survey of 40,000 public school schools concerning school start times. “Other negative outcomes can include gaining weight, depression, and poor academic performance.” Suicides are also blamed on teenager sleep deprivation. According to the San Jose, CA, Mercury News, “In the wake of three student suicides last year, Palo Alto, CA, schools officials zeroed in on sleep deprivation. They heeded medical advice, and for this year Gunn High School eliminated a 7:20 a.m. period, except for PE classes; school now starts at 8:25 a.m.”

The reason teenagers need more sleep is tied to their biological changes. The National Sleep Foundation cited Carskadon’s 1998 study that found older teenagers have a hard time falling asleep earlier at night due to increased melatonin secretions that affect their circadian rhythm, which “turns off” later in the morning. Any parent who has to wake up a teenage boy at 6 a.m. will nod in agreement.

That medical advice included CDC comments that echoed the American Academy of Pediatrics, which suggested high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. so teens can get the sleep they need. “It makes absolutely no sense,” said Dr. M. Safwan Badr, an American Academy of Sleep Medicine past president quoted on the CDC Website. “You’re asking kids to learn math at a time their brains are not even awake.”

The Fairfax County public school district—the largest district in Virginia which includes wealthy D.C. suburbs—accepted the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation to “let them sleep” and adopted a later high school start time this year. Fairfax County officials issued a grant to the Children’s National Medical Center in 2012 to help solve the problem, developed a Blueprint for Change, and then agreed to buy 27 new buses for $4.9 million.

Considerations for school officials involve logistics, other grades, and tax dollars. In Chesterfield County, for example, many bus drivers transport high school students first, and complete similar routes for elementary schools an hour later; the schedule is reversed in the afternoon. Starting Chesterfield County high schools later would impact elementary students, who might depend on their high school siblings to watch them in the afternoons. However, I would like to see how many families could not make a later high school start time work for their schedule.

Also, finishing high school later might impact after-school activities or part-time jobs. Again, an awake student is a more productive student who retains more information and performs better; I think other scheduling considerations should be viewed as secondary to academic performance.

Yes, starting high school later likely requires more bus purchases. According to one local report, estimates range from $1.2 million to $34 million to buy more buses. Chesterfield County School Board Chairman Carrie Coyner, who’s running unopposed for her seat in November, responded to my Facebook inquiry that she supports later high school start times but lacks the budget dollars to implement such a change.

Chesterfield County should do the same thing as Fairfax County for the same right reasons.

–Kris Spadaccia

(These opinions reflect only those of the author.)

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