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Classrooms Are Full Of Sleepy Teens, So Some Districts Are Figuring Out How To Delay Start Times

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Ben Peterson, 16, makes it to his bus every morning by 6:50 a.m. and says it would be nice for him to start classes later and sleep in a little more.

During the school week, Fox Chapel High School sophomore Ben Peterson is usually the first in his family to wake up. By 6:15 a.m., the 16-year-old is downstairs pouring a bowl of cereal. He sits in the dark at the breakfast nook checking soccer scores on his cellphone.

When his phone displays 6:48 a.m., he runs down the driveway to catch his bus, getting to school before the first bell at 7:25 a.m.

Peterson’s mom, Liz Rambeau, is one of a group of Fox Chapel Area School District parents trying to push that start time back by an hour, so students can get more sleep.

Though Ben said he usually feels awake for his first class, by the fourth period, his sleep deprivation catches up with him.

“I almost fall asleep during that class every day,” he said.

Fox Chapel is one of several area districts evaluating school start times. Parents say their teenagers could be performing better in school if they were better rested.

A panel of medical professionals, advocates and school officials fielded questions from parents and community members Tuesday night at the high school. Most of the meeting was spent building a case for the shift. If parents could sell the district on the idea, it could take steps toward making it a reality.

The school board has not yet considered a policy change and district officials declined a request for comment Monday. But, the district did commission a study of its current bell times, bus ridership and what it would cost to adjust schedules.

A handful of other area school districts are also in the evaluation stage. Most say reviews were prompted by a 2014 position statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics that stated evidence, “strongly implicates earlier school start times (i.e., before 8:30 a.m.) as a key modifiable contributor to insufficient sleep, as well as circadian rhythm disruption, in this population.”  

Puberty messes with snoozing

The statement notes that social and environmental factors contribute to sleep loss, but that biological changes in puberty make it hard for teenagers to fall asleep at a time that would allow them to get the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep they need to be ready to learn.

Peterson said he tries to be in his room by 10 p.m. every night, but often doesn’t drift off until midnight. During adolescence, research suggests that the body doesn’t release the hormone melatonin, which helps the body fall asleep, until nearly 11 p.m. The hormone release adjusts again in adulthood.

Because Peterson has to be awake around 6 a.m. in order to make it to school on time, he gets between six and seven hours of sleep a night.

Peter Franzen, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh, studies sleep deprivation in adolescents. He has consulted with school districts for several months to help them review research. He told the group of Fox Chapel parents gathered at the school Tuesday that a lack of sleep is linked to a number of health risks, including depression. He said on the other end, there’s also an association between higher grades and longer periods of sleep.

But Rambeau is concerned by the risks. She founded the local chapter of the national Start School Later movement in an attempt to persuade the school board to push back the start time to 8:30 a.m.

“It’s still early. We just don’t want it to be dangerously early. And yes there are always going to be kids that fall asleep in class," she said. "It has been shown that in places where they have switched times that fewer kids are falling asleep in class."

Making it work

In Pennsylvania, the start time for schools is a local decision. Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators Officials say while research validates later start times, there are significant hurdles for districts looking to make the move, including transportation and after-school activity schedules. 

According to the National Center for Health Research, in the 1950s and '60s most schools started between 8:30 and 9 a.m.

The Start School Later group states that schools started to begin earlier in order to utilize fewer buses and drivers. 

"Expecting children to adapt to the demands of rising earlier because that is what was always done is equivalent to expecting children to drink adulterated milk or ride bikes without helmets because that's what children did in the past," according to the group's website. 

While every district is unique, Start School Later claims that decades ago schools began picking kids up earlier because it was cost effective to have a few buses make multiple runs rather than have a large fleet that picked up kindergarten through high school students at once. 

Rambeau said adjusting the long-standing schedules is a challenging and expensive feat for districts, and that such a move will take resolve.

“I’ve read a ton of case studies and people drag their feet because it’s hard and there are so many pieces,” she said. “And they say well what about there’s a vocational school that Fox Chapel shares with other schools and that’s a model that’s used throughout the state. But if everybody else changes the start times then you’ll line up the classes and that can be done no matter what." 

Testing it in the hallways

This year, Avonworth High School students arrived to first period 45 minutes later than the year before. Superintendent Thomas Ralston said he's been told by teachers that students are more alert. 

"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."

The Avonworth district used to have bus runs for the elementary, middle and high schools. Now, the middle and high schools operate buses at the same time, and about 800 students dismiss from the two schools at once. 

Quaker Valley High School shifted this fall from 7:45 a.m. to 8 a.m. Hampton Township and Seneca Valley are also considering moves.

North Allegheny is the largest school district in Allegheny County to consider the adjustment.

In January, the North Allegheny board tabled a proposed 8 a.m. start time, citing feasibility--that’s the stage many districts are stuck in. Leaders have to coordinate busing and extra-curricular activity schedules.

More than half of Fox Chapel High School students play at least one sport. If schools begin and dismiss later, it impacts practice and game times that already take place late in the evening.

Ben Peterson is on the lacrosse team, and while his mom spoke on the panel, he was playing a game outside. His team, the Fox Chapel Foxes, won.

That game ended just 10 hours before he would have to wake up, ready for another day of school.  

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.