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Raising National Awareness of Early High School Start Times

Greenfield resident Dolores Skowronek discusses her work with Start School Later and writes about their efforts to raise national awareness of the consequences of early high school start times.

I’ve been pretty quiet about the early start time at Greenfield High School lately. Not because I’ve lost interest – but because I’ve been busy working to raise national awareness of the consequences of early high school start times.

In November 2011, I joined forces with several concerned parents from Florida, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington to form the steering committee of Start School Later. We are a not-for-profit, all volunteer national coalition advocating for safe and healthy start times in our nation’s public schools. We have made progress these past few months and currently have members in 19 states and an Advisory Board of experts from respected institutions including the Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Berkeley.

While I’m still deeply concerned about Greenfield’s 7:10 start time (among the earliest in the United States) I now realize that districts routinely implement start time policies with no regard for the health and safety of our children. When it comes to these types of decisions, all of the 13,629 public school districts in the United States will not consistently do the right thing. Efforts to change start times in many communities will always be ineffective when politics and myths trump student health and well-being. That’s why I’m working with Start School Later.

Advocating for national change has been difficult but I’m happy to say that we are making baby steps in the right direction. For example, this week several of our members are meeting with Dr. Anne Mathews-Younes, Director of the Division of Prevention, Traumatic Stress and Special Programs, and Dr. Richard McKeon, Director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and is increasingly recognizing the importance sleep plays in the health and wellness of young people. The scientific research regarding adolescent sleep, the link between early start times and mental health, and the need for large scale policy change will be among the topics discussed.

Our goals are ambitious, but I’m optimistic. Early high school start times impact the health of countless children nationwide. Someday, the decisions makers in DC will recognize that waking at 5:30 to catch a school bus and beginning school in the 7 o’clock hour is incompatible with an adolescent’s health, safety, and ability for optimum academic achievement. In the meantime, we will continue to advocate for change and work to raise national awareness of this important public health issue.

For Patch readers not yet familiar with the consequences of early start times and sleep loss in teens, Start School Later co-founder Dr. Terra Ziporyn Snider recently had an article published in Education Week. She does a great job of describing the start time issue and addresses the obstacles that many good parents encounter when trying to change local policies.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Maribel Ibrahim July 17, 2012 at 11:20 PM
Thanks for posting this, Dolores! I for one have appreciated getting to know you and working with you at StartSchoolLater.net. I also remain optimistic that while change may take a while, if it's the right thing to do, it WILL eventually happen. To get more information about what our group is about and read up on more of Dolores' involvement, please read our July newsletter, here: http://us5.campaign-archive1.com/?u=8709b42d0d2dcba7e7f5dbe6d&id=eb205f528a Regards, Maribel Ibrahim Co-Founder, www.StartSchoolLater.net
MRA July 18, 2012 at 12:22 AM
When my oldest started HS in 1998 I heard that High Schoolers should start later ( 9am ), this was at 9th grade orientation, and that is when Park started at 8am
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) July 18, 2012 at 03:47 PM
I think 8 am is still too early for HS, but I think starting them at 8:30 would be a happy medium. Elementary kids can start at 7:15; MS can start at 8 and HS at 8:30. Why aren't our districts paying attention to this? Surely they can still save $$ on busing by re-arranging the schedules.
Ben Hogan July 18, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Heather@ Many parents would argue that having young children waiting for the bus to pick them up in the dark would be too dangerous to justify switching schedules.
CowDung July 18, 2012 at 06:36 PM
Sleep patterns are more of a habit than anything. Maybe if teens conditioned themselves to go to bed at a decent hour they'd be more awake come morning. I knew many teens that worked on their family's farms before school--they never seemed to have any issues getting up at 6 am to get their chores done before school. Same thing with the kids that had paper routes...
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) July 18, 2012 at 06:58 PM
@Ben - here in Racine, elementary school kids start at staggered times, including at 7:30, while others don't start until almost nine and don't get home until almost 4. At the very least, couldn't we try it for a while, keeping the schools that already start early at their current time and moving one HS to later while switching a MS to a time in between?
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) July 18, 2012 at 07:00 PM
@Cow - Sleep patterns can be a habit, but there are lots of studies out there that use the way adolescent brains develop to show how a later start time can really have a positive impact on the way teens learn and retain information.
CowDung July 18, 2012 at 07:22 PM
I bet those teens are really screwed if they move away from their native time zone... I'm wondering if it were those 'studies' were done in order to 'prove' a desired theory rather than objective and unbiased scientific research. Many teens don't realize that they just need more sleep than they did before their hormones took control, and aren't disciplined enough to adjust their bodies to changes in their circadian rhythms.
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) July 18, 2012 at 07:25 PM
@Cow - those stupid puberty hormones can do a number on sleep patterns, this is true, but what if those same hormones also really do affect the way kids learn and thus, starting at 8:30 as opposed to 7:30 is the answer? Since we're always so concerned with test scores, why not try it for a couple of years and see if it makes a difference - and then let's see how the later times also possibly affect attendance and attitudes (though I realize much of that would be anecdotal).
CowDung July 18, 2012 at 07:36 PM
Maybe they should just follow the Mayo Clinic's recommendations for better teen sleep... http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/teens-health/CC00019/ Adjust the lighting. As bedtime approaches, dim the lights. Then turn off the lights during sleep. In the morning, expose your teen to bright light. These simple cues can help signal when it's time to sleep and when it's time to wake up. Stick to a schedule. Tough as it may be, encourage your teen to go to bed and get up at the same time every day — even on weekends. Prioritize extracurricular activities and curb late-night social time as needed. ...limit working hours to no more than 16 to 20 hours a week. Nix long naps. If your teen is drowsy during the day, a 30-minute nap after school might be refreshing. Be cautious, though. Too much daytime shut-eye might only make it harder to fall asleep at night. Curb the caffeine. A jolt of caffeine might help your teen stay awake during class, but the effects are fleeting — and too much caffeine can interfere with a good night's sleep. Keep it calm. Encourage your teen to wind down at night with a warm shower, a book or other relaxing activities. Discourage stimulating activities — including vigorous exercise, loud music, video games, television, computer use and text messaging — an hour or two before bedtime. Know when to unplug. Take the TV out of your teen's room, or keep it off at night. The same goes for your teen's cellphone, computer and other electronic gadgets.
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) July 18, 2012 at 07:58 PM
@Cow - not denying any of what you say and reference from the Mayo isn't 100% spot-on. We told our teens the same thing and tried to regulate bed time so they were at least in their rooms settling down at 9 pm on weeknights. Hanging out on school nights isn't something we've let them do so it was really about juggling extracurriculars and work for the most part. They didn't have TVs or computers in their rooms and have only had their cell phones for about 18 mos (the 2 older ones are in college). Still - even with all that, it still can't hurt to try it, right? If it doesn't make a whit of difference, then okay, but I think there's enough research on the books to make a valid point for giving it a whirl.
mau July 18, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Are these the same kids who have no problem staying up till all hours of the night and then have trouble getting up in the morning. What are they going to do when they have to get up early for a job and maybe even a sporting event. It's like CowDung said, it's all in conditioning your body. It also includes conditioning your mind to accepting it instead of dwelling and complaining about it.
Dolores Skowronek July 18, 2012 at 11:03 PM
There is a large and growing body of scientific evidence regarding the sleep patterns of adolescents. This evidence is typically published in the peer reviewed biomedical journals. While not 100% perfect, the peer review process does a pretty good job of ensuring that published research reports are unbiased and objective. Having said that, biology and the hormonal shifts experienced during puberty are responsible for the delayed sleep phase commonly experienced in adolescence. The science behind that is absolutely solid. Simply blaming the problems that teens experience with early start times on a lack of conditioning or personal responsibility grossly oversimplifies the problem. The Mayo Clinic does a nice job of providing guidelines to better sleep – but the trick is getting every single teen to follow their recommendations. That would involve changing the behavior of a nation of teenagers. Good luck with that. Changing the behavior of an entire population of kids is one of the most difficult things imaginable. Wouldn’t it make more sense to change one thing – the school start time?
Steve ® July 20, 2012 at 01:34 PM
Make him go to bed an hour earlier
Steve ® July 20, 2012 at 01:36 PM
Practices and other after school activities would go until 7pm+ Lazy teachers just want to sleep in
Steve ® July 20, 2012 at 01:39 PM
Let me tell you a little secret. If you start school later, the kid is just going to stay up later getting the same amount of sleep. They will be on the stupid computer, phone or game system in their room being a productive member of the teenage race.
Bren July 20, 2012 at 01:57 PM
Steve, one of the issues is student nutrition. Teens who are up late with homework/work and have to get up so early for school don't get enough sleep and probably skip breakfast, an important meal for growing kids. There's also the issue of waiting for the bus in extremely cold temperatures in winter in the early morning.
CowDung July 20, 2012 at 02:16 PM
How long does it take for these kids to adjust to the time changes for daylight savings? If starting school an hour later will have such a huge effect on these kids, I can't imagine the turmoil brought upon them when they have to turn their clocks ahead and lose an hour of sleep...
Steve ® July 20, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Bren, they get off school at 2.30p. Plenty of time to get their "homework" done. It's cold in the winter period, they kids know the bus comes at 6.55, trust me they don't get there at 6.30 and wait. They get there at 6.53. Eat breakfast in the AM, pretty simple. So when they get a job they don't have to get up in the AM? I just don't see any rational argument here. If you start them later and are in a sports, their practice will run much later. So now its 7.30 and the kid is strolling in, dinner, shower, homework, GF, facebook etc. Kid is still not going to bed until late. Now kid is tiered and skips breakfast anyway and is cold waiting for the bus and union teacher got to sleep in. There is only 24 hrs in the day, rearrange the schedule all you want but you can't create more time.
CowDung July 20, 2012 at 02:26 PM
Bren: How would starting later address the late night homework issue? There's just a shift to their time schedule--they don't actually get more time to do their homework. If they start later, they will finish later, go to bed even later, wake up later and still skip breakfast.
Maribel Ibrahim July 26, 2012 at 04:39 AM
Steve, actually, that secret is a myth: This common misconception has not come to pass in studies of students who have had their schools shift to later start times. Three studies, conducted in 2007, 2008 and 2009, found that students got more sleep because they went to bed at or near the same time each night and were able to rise later with the later school start times. Full citations and a discussion of this topic are available at http://schoolstarttime.org/delaying-school-start-times/will-students-squander-opportunity-extra-sleep/. The landmark Wahlstrom reference study also cites similar findings from the earliest study of later school start times. Read more about common myths associated with changing to healthy school start times here: http://www.startschoollater.net/myths-and-misconceptions.html
Steve ® July 26, 2012 at 05:31 AM
It's not a myth to me, it's real life. Unless the parent 100% regulates the bed time, with zero distractions in the bedroom, nothing will change. There are even more distractions than when I went though this real life situation only 10 years ago. Do we also ignore summer jobs that make you wake up early? Well I suppose so in this economy since there is less and less for a HS student.
Stacy Simera July 28, 2012 at 07:19 PM
Steve, you ask for a rational explanation, and making a teen go to bed an hour earlier does sound very rational - however the reason behind changing school start times has to do with changes that occur just during puberty. Although there is a ton of research on this, the research is hidden away in dry scholarly journals and barely read national reports. When puberty hits, adolescents also experience a 90-minute later shift in their circadian rhythm - they don't release melatonin until around 10:30 pm and they continue to release melatonin until around 9am. It's because of this change during puberty - combined with getting up earlier than mother nature intends - that makes our youth sleep-deprived. I agree that they will have to adjust to getting up when they work their first major jobs - but by then they will be out of puberty.
Lee August 30, 2012 at 02:45 PM
your name says it all...that aside, your comment that sleep patterns are purely the result of habit is ignorant and has no basis or support in that pesky lil' arena of SCIENCE. The vast majority of adults aren't at work by 7:20am yet we expect teens to be in class, alert, participating, taking tests, etc. If you asked the average parent to be at his or her desk at that hour while being lectured to and quizzed by bosses or management, there'd be workplace meltdowns by the millions! Start high school later. Doing so will decrease drop out rates and increase student performance and attitude. How many kids in this country are still milkin' the cows and feedin' the chickens before school? Few to nil? If those areas in which farming before dawn still exists want to keep school times early, go for it. The overwhelmingly vast majority of people who do not tend to the family farm prefer sleep, sanity, and scholastic success.
Lee August 30, 2012 at 02:52 PM
Generally speaking...as adults, they will have to be at work between 8:30 and 9:00am; as high schoolers, their "work day" begins between 6:50 and 7:25am. Their school day is out of sync with the rest of normal life, so getting out of school between 2 and 3pm does not make up for the fact that they are expected to be alert and perform while the rest of the world is, again generally speaking, just getting going or still slumbering. There is zero common sense in sending a kid, esp a teen on the hormonal roller coaster we all ride at that stage of development, to school as early as we do.
Lee August 30, 2012 at 02:57 PM
You may be right to a degree, Steve, but what you fail to grasp is that sleep quality is not just about hours, it is also about time of day and how the time of day impacts hormone levels. For the typical teen, sleep in the early morning hours is more likely, restful, and restorative, than sleep later at night due to the interplay btwn hormones and time of day. That's why even when a teen dutifuly commits to lights out by 9 or 10pm or even later, they toss and turn, remaining wide awake, in spite of their best efforts.
Lee August 30, 2012 at 03:04 PM
well, Steve, a parent might be able to go in and confiscate every gadget, book, game, or possible "distraction" a kid might face at bed time, however the one thing no parent can do: regulate hormones of said kid. Steve, science has you beat on this topic. Not to say that there aren't outlier teens who are natural early risers or that there aren't kids who manage to square-peg-into-round-hole style force themselves to get up before dawn and get great grades, but for the majority of humans in this particular stage of development, the early to bed, early to rise approach is in complete conflict with their physiological reality.
Dolores Skowronek August 30, 2012 at 10:52 PM
Lee, thank you for your comments. I appreciate it. You obviously understand this issue really well, and I agree with you 100%
Lee August 31, 2012 at 02:09 AM
You are quite welcome, Dolores! So happy to find that this website exists. We need posters like CowDung and Steve. It provides an opportunity to explain that, generally speaking, teens who are asleep at their desks at dawn are not lazy, stubborn brats who simply refuse to get to sleep by a particular hour. Instead, they are quite at the mercy of their rapidly developing brains and wildly fluctuating, ever increasing levels of hormones. It alters their internal clock in such a way that makes starting school as early as most do disruptive to disastrous. The flatliners who far too often populate public school administrations and snarky, closeminded adults who would rather negatively characterize teens instead of grasping science make this whole issue an uphill battle.
Dolores Skowronek September 05, 2012 at 09:42 PM
For more information on the start time issue, please see my latest blog: http://greenfield.patch.com/blog_posts/school-start-times-and-healthy-people-2020

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