Parenting is a Journey
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Later starts for middle and high school.
Given the choice, Damarisse Valladares, a junior at Alma Heights Christian Schools in Pacifica, would prefer a later start time to the school day. “I think there are a lot of reasons starting school later would be good,” says Damarisse. “Families would have more time to get to school, so I believe there would be less tardiness. If students could wake up later, they would feel less drowsy and be more alert. We could start the day more relaxed, feeling less stress.
Teens Need More Sleep
Students like Damarisse are not the only advocates for a later start to the school day. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a study reporting that on school nights, 87 percent of high school students and 59 percent of middle school students slept less than the 8.5 to 9.5 hours recommended by health experts. The primary reason is early school starts that conflict with the students’ circadian rhythms — their bodies’ 24-hour physiological cycle.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) concurs and, along with the AAP, recommends that the start to the middle and high school day be 8:30 a.m. Few schools are following this advice. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average school start time in the U.S. is 7:59 a.m. Both San Francisco and Boston public middle and high schools have staggered starts beginning as early as 7:25 a.m. and as late as 9:30 a.m. Massachusetts has one of the earliest start times for high school students in the country.
“The reason so many middle and high schools have early bell times has to do with finding ways to save money,” says Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD, Executive Director and Co-founder of Start School Later (startschoolater.net), a coalition of health professionals, sleep scientists, educators, parents, students and other concerned citizens dedicated to increasing public awareness about the relationships between sleep and school hours.
Ziporyn Snider explains that school systems wanted to save money on busing costs. “But even schools districts that don’t bus kids moved earlier to match their hours with the majority of schools. This helped with afterschool activities as well as staff needs.”
Dangers of Lack of Sleep
The National Sleep Foundation determined in a 2010 report that two-thirds of high school students get less than seven hours of sleep, and 33 percent of teenagers report falling asleep in school. Insufficient sleep in teens is associated with obesity, migraines and immune system disruption. It contributes to risky behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, stimulant abuse, depression and suicidal tendencies.
Contrary to common belief, school schedules are not set to accommodate working parents. Ziporyn Snider explains, “The whole idea that schools now run at times that help working families is absurd. In the same district, an elementary school may open at 9:00 a.m. and an early start school may close at 2:00 p.m. No matter what, parents have to work around school schedules and adjust their lives.”
“I can see pluses and minuses for adjusting the start to the school day,” says Dan Robinson, middle and high school principal at Alma Heights Christian Schools. “There is empirical evidence that a later morning start is healthier for teens, but that necessitates a later afternoon dismissal, and that’s tough on school sports programs.”
“More and more athletic directors are coming to recognize that later school start times go hand-in-hand with successful athletic programs,” counters Ziporyn Snider. “Athletes who get healthier sleep are likely to be stronger, safer and more successful on the playing field.”
A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics in March 2014, titled Chronic Lack of Sleep Is Associated with Increased Sports Injuries in Adolescent Athletes, concluded that sleep deprivation appears to be associated with injuries in the adolescent athletic population. “Encouraging young athletes to get optimal amounts of sleep may help protect them against athletic injuries.”
Since 2014, three states have passed bills related to this issue. This past April, the California Legislature passed SB 328, a bill sponsored by Senator Anthony J. Portantino, which mandates that the school day for middle and high schools begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m. It will now go before the appropriations committee and the full State Assembly for approval.
An early start to the school day is not an American idea. Countries around the world begin the day at times close to those in U.S. cities. Chinese students attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. but enjoy a two-hour lunch. The school day in Japan and the United Kingdom begins at 8:45 a.m., but 8:00 a.m. seems to be the norm in many countries.
School calendars have seen few changes in the last 100 years. Ziporyn Snider says, “People don’t like change. They assume that the way things are done now is the best way, but there is evidence from hundreds of school districts that confirm that the later start is a good thing.”
Between 2010 and 2013, the CDC funded a study on academic success in high schools with later start times. Eight high schools in five school districts in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming participated. There were significant decreases in absences and tardiness in all grades. Grade-point averages increased for first-period classes.
What You Can Do
Access local, state and national petitions to start school later at (http://www.startschoollater.net/sign-or-start-a-petition.html).
Join Start School Later. There are 94 chapters in 26 states and the District of Columbia.
“Healthy school hours are a fundamental part of student health and well-being,” concludes Ziporyn Snider. “This should be a priority.”
As the mother of five, Susan Solomon Yem has experienced all kinds of parenting. Tell her your stories at susansyem@ gmail.com