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Does Your Child Pass The Eye Test? The Biological Case For Delaying High School Start Times

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
In this photo taken Nov. 23, 2015, sophomore Ben Early yawns as he stands in his school cafeteria before classes at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. Seattle moved to an 8:45 start time in 2015.

This year, Avonworth High School students arrived at their first period, for the most part, after sunrise.

The district recently shifted its first period start time from 7:15 to 8 a.m., and Superintendent Thomas Ralston said his students now pass what he calls "the eye test."

“You can see that kids are coming to school, and they’re awake. They’re coming in when it’s light outside,” he said. “Our faculty have reported that kids are more attentive in class … and faculty feel more prepared.”

Teachers are still arriving to school at 7:15 and use the time to prepare for the day, he said. 

Teenagers need more sleep

While adults may be ready to teach before the sun rises, there’s a case for blaming biology rather than laziness.

University of Pittsburgh Psychiatry Professor Peter Franzen said biological changes in puberty make it harder to fall asleep at night and research shows that most teenagers aren’t getting enough sleep.

“There’s an association between higher grades, performance, achievement (and) test scores with longer sleep duration. So it seems that short sleep is a risk factor for poor academic performance,” he said.

Teens' circadian rhythms are delayed compared to adults, which means adolescents naturally prefer going to sleep and waking up later, he said.

“It looks like when we try to force adolescents into acting like adults, they suffer from more problems like doing worse in school, car accidents, more depression and other kinds of negative consequences,” he said.

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics released a position statement recommending that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 in order to give students more time to sleep. 

According to Franzen, that sparked a national movement which has now trickled down to districts in Western Pennsylvania contemplating similar shifts.

A North Allegheny survey last year found its 7:25 a.m. start time was a factor in student stress levels, communications specialist Emily Schaffer said. The board considered pushing back to 8 a.m. at a recent meeting; their next discussion is scheduled for Jan. 24.

Franzen also cites studies that show an association between kids who get less sleep and increases in depression and suicide attempts.

“I’m convinced by the science that’s out there that suggests that the later we send kids to school the better they tend to do. This is data that either comes from schools that have made the change or just looking at what we know in terms of all the risks and negative consequences associated with kids who get short sleep,” he said.

Making the logistics work

For Avonworth, it was a fairly simple move. The district used to have three bus runs, one each for the elementary, middle and high school. Now, the middle and high school operate buses at the same time, and about 800 students dismiss from the two schools at once.

At first, that made superintendent Ralston nervous, but he said it was ultimately a good move. The high school has recorded 500 fewer absences compared to the 2015 school year.

Other school districts are trying it, too.

Quaker Valley High School shifted students' schedules from 7:45 to 8 a.m. this fall. Hampton Township, which begins at 7:30 a.m., is also considering a move. Franzen is scheduled to present research at a special Jan. 22 community meeting, though no proposals have been made.

Two big hurdles for any district considering a change will be adjusting transportation and commitments to established extracurricular activities, Ralston said, but it's doable. Buses might be out later, and practice and competition schedules could need to be moved.

“We’re going to continue to make adjustments and make sure what we’re doing is meeting the needs of our kids,” Ralston said. “First and foremost, we need to look out for the health of our kids.  

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
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