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Push for more sleep for high schoolers intensifies

Early start times don’t match the adolescent biological clock, one expect says
One in five students starts school before 7:30 a.m., and many get on the bus before the sun rises.
One in five students starts school before 7:30 a.m., and many get on the bus before the sun rises.

The national fight for later high school start times is gaining traction, as districts and activists join together to push for new policies that will allow students to get more rest.

Today, half of parents of students in grades nine through 12 report a school start time before 8 a.m., according to a 2013 national survey from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. Nearly one in five parents reported a school start time before 7:30 a.m.

Early start times don’t match the adolescent biological clock, says Daniel Lewin, associate director of sleep medicine at the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C. Puberty causes a shift in circadian rhythms, programming adolescents to fall asleep later, often around 11 p.m. And with extracurricular activities and homework, students often get far less sleep than they need, Lewin says.

Adolescents should optimally get nine hours of sleep per night. Students who don’t sleep enough have shorter attention spans, decreased cognitive skills and reduced ability to learn new information, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“The science is really strong—it’s unhealthy and counterproductive to run schools at the hours we currently run them,” says Terra Ziporyn Snider, executive director of the nonprofit Start School Later, Inc. The organization has a national petition with over 8,000 signatures to promote legislation preventing schools from starting before 8 a.m.

The movement for later start times received a boost in September from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said more sleep was a common sense way to improve student achievement.

Between 200 and 300 schools and districts have changed to later hours in recent years, and have seen increases in health and safety, Ziporyn Snider says. A 2010 study of two adjacent Virginia county districts with different start times found that the county that began school at 7:20 a.m. had a 40 percent higher teen driver crash rate than did the county starting at 8:40 a.m. Past studies have found similar results.

Buses didn’t always begin their runs before sunrise: Before 1980, most schools started around 9 a.m. But as busing students became the norm, districts found it was cost-effective to stagger school start times and reuse the buses instead of buying more. This resulted in earlier and earlier start times, Ziporyn Snider says.

Many of the schools that have now changed back to later start times have done so with minimal or no cost increases, she says. Some districts have switched elementary and high school start times, to keep the same bus schedules and accommodate adolescents’ sleep needs. It’s parents and community members who have provided the strongest resistance to later start times, for fear of the change to their schedules, Ziporyn Snider says.

“School districts can see changing start times as an opportunity to impact learning and health,” Lewin says. “Current schedules are to a great extent more of a convenience that don’t necessarily acknowledge optimal health and learning opportunities.”