When school bell rings teens should be awake

Teen-agers’ sleep patterns need more attention from their schools.

Over the past several years, national research has suggested that teens have trouble with early morning start times. Across the country, a number of districts have made changes to try to help students learn better.

It’s time for a more concerted look at the issue by districts around Puget Sound.

In recent weeks, a controversy over earlier starting times for next year has brought high school schedules forcefully to the attention of the Everett School District. Administrators there have expressed at least some interest in a long-range examination of whether parents and students would like later starts at the district’s three high schools. In Seattle, the district has asked the parent teacher student association to survey parents about moving back the current starting time. Districts throughout the area would do well to examine the issue, particularly for high schools but also for middle schools.

A number of studies suggest that teen-agers have greater concentration later in the day. Many teachers and students say, moreover, that early morning classes are often marked by yawns (or worse) and a lack of questions.

A pioneering study at the University of Minnesota found that school schedules beginning at 7:30 a.m. or earlier cause problems for teens. The Minnesota Medical Association followed up with a recommendation of 8:30 a.m. starts for high schools, an idea that brought changes by two major districts, Minneapolis and Edina.

A researcher based at Brown University in Rhode Island says that young people who must awaken at 6 a.m. are getting up in the middle of their "biological night." Yet that’s exactly what most teen-agers face.

In the Northwest, districts have a variety of start times but tend to begin before 8 a.m. In Snohomish County, for instance, Mariner, Kamiak and Marysville-Pilchuck high schools started the past year at 7:20 a.m., Lake Stevens at 7:40 and Monroe at 7:50.

Any major switches would face a number of complexities, as Everett’s controversy shows. The district had allowed a variety of starting times, ranging from 7:25 a.m. at Everett High to 7:50 a.m. at Jackson High in Mill Creek. Although the lack of parental involvement in the planning is disappointing, a number of very good-faith considerations on the part of administrators led to a schedule that will have Cascade, Everett and Jackson begin the day at 7:30 a.m. Among the reasons were a savings of $500,000 in transportation costs and a desire to provide more staff training – aimed at the higher standards of the school reform movement. Still, the research and the district’s history of strained relations with the Jackson attendance area make the move to a uniform time appear ill-advised.

Large questions would be faced in any district moving to significantly later starting times. After-school jobs can be important to many teens and their families, and sports practice schedules might be squeezed. Then there are the questions of bus costs and schedules for the other schools in the district. Moving the start of the school day for 7-year-olds to 7:20 a.m. isn’t going to work.

Despite the potential problems, schools and communities should look at later starting times. Schools exist to serve learning. If students can do better by changing the school’s schedules, districts must find ways to consider the possibilities.

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