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Later Start May Be an Awakening for Schools

A campus delays the morning bell in response to research showing teens do not perform as well early in the morning.

November 25, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

The most vexing problem Jason Hemsath faced in his freshman geometry class was that it started at 7:30 a.m.

"No matter how hard I tried," he said, "I always fell asleep."

Now the Antelope Valley High School senior says he rarely dozes at his desk in his first-period class. It starts at 8:30 a.m.

The change at the Lancaster campus is part of an emerging national consensus that early morning school bells can take a heavy toll on adolescent learners. Auditors insisted that Antelope Valley High begin classes later, as part of the reforms they recommended to the underperforming school.

In the last decade, school districts in 20 states from Alaska to Florida have pushed back starting times. Their actions were influenced by research suggesting that teenagers simply are not cut out to wake up early, due to the peculiarity of their developing bodies.

Those studies have prompted the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C., to issue a "Wake-up Call" to America's educators, asking them to address the "silent problem" of teenage sleep deprivation. Sleepy adolescents, the foundation asserts, "are more prone to increased use of stimulants, negative moods, behavior problems, and difficulty controlling emotions, all of which are critical to school success."

Jason's mother thinks the later start time might help improve his grades. "Sometimes, Jason is up doing homework till 12 o'clock at night," Lyngay Hemsath said. "Now he's getting better sleep and more sleep, and I'm all for that."

To a large degree, America's high schools still operate around the traditional rhythms of agrarian life, with first bells generally ringing at 7:30 a.m. and dismissal occurring around 2:30 p.m.

It's unclear if the latest sleep research could alter the nation's traditional patterns. The new emphasis on school accountability -- along with overcrowding and traffic congestion -- has prompted some high schools to start their days even earlier, cramming core or enrichment classes into "zero periods" that begin as early as 6:30, said Michael Carr, spokesman for the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.

For the last two years, Temecula Valley High School in Riverside County has offered voluntary classes that start at 6:24 a.m. The 3,500-student school took the step to relieve overcrowding and ease the pressure on local streets during rush hour. Students taking the early classes are often dismissed before 1 p.m.

"A lot of times it benefits the kids who've got to work after school," Assistant Principal Mark Chavez said.

At Antelope Valley High, the start times were addressed last May when auditors, working under California's accountability program for underperforming schools, criticized the school's "culture of failure."

Auditors found poor understanding of state teacher standards on the 2,700-student campus, a lack of communication among the staff and discipline problems among students.

They called for some big changes: Top administrators were forced to step down; a new discipline code was drawn up.

And, the auditors said, the school day should begin later. The change took effect as Jason started his senior year this fall.

In the last few years, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) has introduced a number of bills seeking federal grants for schools that start later.

All were unsuccessful, but in April she issued a nonbinding resolution called "ZZZs to A's" urging secondary schools to start class no earlier than 8:30 a.m. It is currently under consideration by the House Subcommittee on Education Reform.

Lofgren said the research findings echoed her experiences with her children.

"When my kids hit puberty, all of a sudden I just couldn't get them up," she said. "I thought, 'What is going on here? Am I bad mother?' "

Of course, individual teenagers have their own reasons for missing their morning alarms, from homework cram sessions to late nights at their PlayStations. But in recent years, researchers have pinpointed some possible biological explanations for the inclination of adolescents to sleep in.

Mary Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, found that a difference in sleep patterns may be attributed to teenagers' developing endocrine systems. Adolescent bodies appear to produce melatonin -- the brain chemical linked to the timing of sleep -- later in the evening than young children, and stop secreting it later in the morning.

Although additional research is needed, Carskadon said adolescents' melatonin secretion patterns also appeared to differ from those of adults.

In 2001, in the broadest study of its kind to date, University of Minnesota researchers set out to see if a later school bell had an effect on high school students' academic performance. Their study, headed by education professor Kyla Wahlstrom, analyzed three years of data from two high school districts in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that had moved up their morning bell.

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