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A Later, Smarter Start

November 24, 2003

Anyone who has ever had to rouse a sleeping teenager before dawn to beat a 7:30 a.m. tardy bell will consider the decision by Antelope Valley High School to begin classes an hour later a no-brainer. The school, identified by the state as an "underperforming" campus, was directed by an evaluation team to shift its start time from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. this fall. It is too soon to tell whether the later start will translate into academic improvement, but already tardiness is down and teachers say students seem more alert.

That's not surprising. Mounting scientific evidence shows that the morning school bell catches teenagers at their worst. It's not just that teens don't get enough sleep (only one in seven gets the nine hours nightly that research shows teens need), but that school schedules work against their physiological needs. It seems hormonal shifts at puberty leave adolescents biologically primed to fall asleep after 11 p.m. and resist waking before 8 a.m. "The sleep/wake cycle of the teenager is the same, whether we study kids in Rome, Sao Paulo or Tel Aviv," says University of Minnesota education professor Kyra Wahlstrom. "It's a matter of human biology."

For years, sleep researchers have been urging schools to begin classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Instead, most high schools commence before 8 a.m., and some start as early as 7 a.m. Working against change are generations of tradition, logistical challenges and adult concerns and needs. Coaches complain that pushing start times back would shorten afternoon practices for sports teams. Teachers like a workday that ends at 3 p.m. Parents favor an early start because it suits their morning routines. But creative schools are winning converts.

In Woodland, in Northern California, Lee Middle School moved its start from 8 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. this year but added enrichment classes, electives and tutoring at 8 a.m. Working parents can still drop off their children early, and the longer school day leaves kids with less time on their own in the afternoons. After a group of Minneapolis high schools switched five years ago from a 7:15 a.m. start to 8:40 a.m., critics were silenced by improved attendance, diminishing dropout rates, fewer disciplinary infractions and no appreciable effect on the win-loss records of the schools' sports teams. Parents even reported that their kids were easier to live with at home.

High schools continue to falter when it comes to raising student performance. Fashioning the day to fit students' needs instead of adult convenience might help more than another round of studies or tests.

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