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When sleep becomes productive in Virginia schools

Fairfax County Public Schools working to move start of school from 7:20 a.m. to 8 a.m., or later

High school students in Fairfax County, Va., may soon get to hit the snooze button, as the district partners with sleep specialists to delay school start times in hopes of raising academic achievement and improving student health.

“Sleep is absolutely critical to learning,” says Fairfax County Public Schools board member Sandy Evans. “Our adolescent students simply aren’t getting enough sleep for their physical, mental, or academic health.”

Two-thirds of Fairfax County students in grades 8, 10, and 12 reported sleeping an average of seven hours or less on school nights, according to a 2011 survey conducted by the district. Over 25 percent of students in grade 12 said they averaged less than five hours of sleep per night.

The school board decided last spring to figure out how to move the start of school from 7:20 a.m. to 8 a.m., or later. Over the course of this school year, sleep specialists from the National Children’s Medical Center will work with parents and administrators to determine how to rearrange transportation and after-school activities in the nation’s 11th-largest district, which operates 28 high schools outside of Washington, D.C.

Neighboring Arlington County Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools both start classes at around 8 a.m., and offer the same extracurricular activities as Fairfax County does, Evans says. Since Arlington County moved to the later schedule in 2001, attendance has improved and students are more alert in class, school officials reported to the Center for Public Education.

Later start times were endorsed in September by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said more sleep was a common sense way to improve student achievement.

Students who aren’t getting enough sleep have shortened attention spans, decreased cognitive skills, and reduced ability to learn and remember new information, according to the National Institutes of Health. Studies also have found that a teen’s body clock is usually set to fall asleep around 11 p.m., and wake at 8 a.m., and adolescents function best physically and mentally after nine hours of sleep, Evans says.

“Our start times are not in sync with their body clocks,” Evans says. “Adolescents have a different circadian rhythm—it’s not just a matter of habit, but of biology. When we require them to be at the bus at 6 a.m. for a 7:20 start time, we are cutting off their natural sleep cycle.”