Let them sleep

Jilly Dos Santos is a hero to teenagers everywhere.

Jilly Dos Santos really did try to get to school on time. She set three successive alarms on her phone. Skipped breakfast. Hastily applied makeup while her fuming father drove. But last year she rarely made it into the frantic scrum at the doors of Rock Bridge High School here by the first bell, at 7:50 a.m.

Then she heard that the school board was about to make the day start even earlier, at 7:20 a.m.

“I thought, if that happens, I will die,” recalled Jilly, 17. “I will drop out of school!”

That was when the sleep-deprived teenager turned into a sleep activist. She was determined to convince the board of a truth she knew in the core of her tired, lanky body: Teenagers are developmentally driven to be late to bed, late to rise. Could the board realign the first bell with that biological reality?

The sputtering, nearly 20-year movement to start high schools later has recently gained momentum in communities like this one, as hundreds of schools in dozens of districts across the country have bowed to the accumulating research on the adolescent body clock.

In just the last two years, high schools in Long Beach, Calif.; Stillwater, Okla.; Decatur, Ga.;, and Glens Falls, N.Y., have pushed back their first bells, joining early adopters in Connecticut, North Carolina, Kentucky and Minnesota. The Seattle school board will vote this month on whether to pursue the issue. The superintendent of Montgomery County, Md., supports the shift, and the school board for Fairfax County, Va., is working with consultants to develop options for starts after 8 a.m.

New evidence suggests that later high school starts have widespread benefits. Researchers at the University of Minnesota, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studied eight high schools in three states before and after they moved to later start times in recent years. In results released Wednesday they found that the later a school’s start time, the better off the students were on many measures, including mental health, car crash rates, attendance and, in some schools, grades and standardized test scores.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the research, noted that the study was not a randomized controlled trial, which would have compared schools that had changed times with similar schools that had not. But she said its methods were pragmatic and its findings promising.

“Even schools with limited resources can make this one policy change with what appears to be benefits for their students,” Dr. Miller said.


At heart, though, experts say, the resistance is driven by skepticism about the primacy of sleep.

“It’s still a badge of honor to get five hours of sleep,” said Dr. Judith Owens, a sleep expert at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. “It supposedly means you’re working harder, and that’s a good thing. So there has to be a cultural shift around sleep.”

Last January, Jilly decided she would try to make that change happen in the Columbia school district, which sprawls across 300 square miles of flatland, with 18,000 students and 458 bus routes. But before she could make the case for a later bell, she had to show why an earlier one just would not do.

She got the idea in her team-taught Advanced Placement world history class, which explores the role of leadership. Students were urged to find a contemporary topic that ignited their passion. One morning, the teachers mentioned that a school board committee had recommended an earlier start time to solve logistical problems in scheduling bus routes. The issue would be discussed at a school board hearing in five days. If you do not like it, the teachers said, do something.

Jilly did the ugly math: A first bell at 7:20 a.m. meant she would have to wake up at 6 a.m.

She had found her passion.

As it happens, six AM is when I got up to go to high school. My first class wasn’t until 8:40, but I had a 90-minute commute from Staten Island to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and my friends and I generally preferred being on the 6:45 AM ferry – it was one of the “new” boats back then, it was less crowded, and it was non-smoking on the lower deck, which is where you wanted to be so you could get to the subways station ahead of the pack. I’d actually arrive about an hour before my first class, unless I had jazz band rehearsal, which started at 8. I was also usually in bed by about ten back then; I didn’t experience true sleep deprivation until I got to college, which is a whole ‘nother story. Anyway, as the parent of a child who is decidedly not a morning person, I will be much happier (as will she) if high school starts later in the day. The evidence is pretty compelling. I hope someone in HISD is paying attention to this.

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One Response to Let them sleep

  1. Gary says:

    I taught for most of my career in a high school that started at 7:25, and whenever possible tried to avoid teaching first period classes — who wants to stand in front of a classful of sleeping students? Why, I would ask, given all the research in this field? Well the buses make two trips, they would say, and they pick up elementary students later. Why? So that older siblings would be there when the younger kids arrived home. So who is with the younger kids when their older siblings leave in the morning? No answer. It turns out the real reason is that they wanted to have as much daylight as possible for after-school sports, even in the dead of winter, and they did not want to spring for the price of outdoor lighting. Even in this otherwise academically oriented suburban community, the athletic tail wagged the academic dog.

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