Earlier school start time contradicts brain research

Posted: Friday, March 14, 2008

According to the Juneau-Douglas High School and Thunder Mountain High School information guide, "Bell time for the high schools will be set 15 minutes earlier during the 2008-2009 school year, with first period beginning at 7:45 a.m. and school ending at 2 p.m. Since this is not an ideal schedule for adolescent students, the administration will continue to look at options for the 2009-2010 school year."

Forcing teenagers to attend high school at 7:45 a.m. next year completely contradicts brain research. The decision puts students' grades at risk and is harmful to their well-being. Clinical research concluding that later school start times add up to big student improvement seems to have been completely overlooked.

This schedule change has a lot to do with the cost of school buses. The bus you board in the morning will take you to school by around 7 a.m, and then continue to the other high school, picking up middle and elementary school kids after that.

This schedule proves to be the cheapest for the Juneau School District.

The ironic part of this schedule, however, is that the kids who need sleep the most have to get up the earliest in the morning, while energetic elementary children are allowed to sleep in. This is a flawed setup that occurs in much of the United States, but Alaska students express that it feels much worse in the North.

"It's really hard to focus on the road when you just wake up, and it's pitch black out," said senior Katie Stromme.

We spend much of the morning in darkness and this warps teens' internal clocks even further.

Teens' late-to-bed, late-to-rise sleep cycle has been clinically proven to be more than the "cool thing to do." A part of this trend may be from pressures like homework or phone habits. However, doctors have noticed that, from puberty until the early-20s, the chemical responsible for drowsiness, melatonin, starts flowing from 11 p.m. until 8 a.m. This means teens may not feel tired until after 11 p.m, or begin feeling rested if allowed to sleep until after 8 a.m. the next morning.

The Minneapolis School District decided to try something new: They ordered schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Researchers were eager to figure out what would happen.

Not surprisingly, after their school times were bumped from 7:20 a.m. to 8:40 a.m, the schools showed a significant change. Students appeared to be less stressed, and less depression was diagnosed within the schools. Schools reported fewer discipline problems, less tardiness and higher grades district-wide. Their district also noted a reduction in dropout rates.

Since all this new medical research pertaining to teens' sleep needs is being publicized, and success stories like that of Minneapolis are spreading around the country, our own school district should consider delaying our high schools' start times.

Would it not make sense to simply switch the elementary schools' start time of 9:15 a.m. with ours, allowing us to get some more much needed sleep? It would be a huge change, but not so different from the splitting of all high school students next year as well.

In the case of the Minneapolis School District, some parents and students were worried about not having as much time for sports and jobs, and that little kids would have to arrive at school in the dark. At the end of the first year, the late time was implemented; however, 92 percent of students and parents were very impressed with how well it worked out for everyone.

Instead of defying sleep research and presenting students with an earlier start time, no matter how short-term, we could experiment with a much later start time that has turned into a success story in many other schools countrywide. Unfortunately, this seems to not be an option for the 2008-2009 school year, as the School Board seems firm on the 7:45 a.m. decision, but this sounds like an ideal plan for the years to come and a way to improve the education and morale of the new school communities.

• Lydia Steele is a junior in Ali McKenna's Juneau-Douglas High School "Writing for Publication" class. From the Hallways is a column showcasing the thoughts and opinions of students in McKenna's high school journalism class and Sarah Brooks' Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School writing workshop.

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