Perhaps your teenager acts like showing up to school at 7:30 a.m. is a cruel and unusual punishment. Sleep research now shows he may be right. Teen biology creates a later sleep cycle for adolescents — they fall asleep later, which means they wake up later as well. Accordingly, a major education policy reform is staring education officials in the face, in the form of bleary-eyed students who would clearly benefit from different school hours. The formula is simple: A school bell that rings later could equal better academic performance.
About 60 percent of high school students report extreme daytime sleepiness; one study found that only 15 percent of adolescents get the recommended minimum of 8.5 hours of sleep on school nights. Extrapolate that to cover the roughly 300,000 high school students in the Commonwealth who start their school day at an average of 7:37 a.m., and it adds up to 255,000 sleep-deprived students.
That’s despite guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommend starting both middle and high school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. In Boston, according to a Globe report, more than half of the nearly three dozen public high schools start an hour or more earlier than that. Out of 37 Boston public high schools, 15 begin before 7:10 a.m.
For a teenager with a fast-developing brain, waking up that early is the equivalent of an adult getting up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. For some students, sleep deprivation leads to the kind of poor school functioning that can have a domino effect: tardiness, bad grades, depression, anxiety, increased risk of car accidents, vulnerability to substance abuse — and in some cases a lack of sleep gets misdiagnosed as ADHD.
Later school start times have produced impressive results: At Nauset Regional High School on the Cape, tardiness fell by 35 percent and the number of D’s and F’s dropped by half after the first bell was pushed back an hour, to 8:35 a.m. Sleep scientists also report, in a new study, that later school start times have significantly raised graduation rates and helped to close the achievement gap. When students from economically disadvantaged households arrive at school on time, they’re more likely to stay in class and graduate.
But change is not without its obstacles. Most school systems are built around an early start for high schools, so school bus schedules as well as schedules for sports and extracurricular activities would be affected.
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang told the Globe that the department continues to research the issue, despite growing support from the City Council and the Boston School Committee. There are a few concerns around having to rearrange bus schedules, and high schoolers in the city remain divided — some would welcome the later start while others worry about getting out of school later, leaving less time in the afternoon for extracurricular activities or part-time jobs. But few high schoolers are bused, and youths with part-time jobs might well be better workers, too, if they’re not sleep deprived.
Hopefully, Councilor at Large Annissa Essaibi George, who pushed the issue of school start times during her campaign, will keep up the pressure. Teens may always grumble about waking up for school, but at least school hours shouldn’t be an obstacle to learning.