In Our View: Start Later, Learn More

High schools delaying beginning of day could give students educational boost

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Anybody who has tried to wake a teenager before dawn to get ready for school knows it can be akin to poking a hibernating bear.

It turns out there are biological reasons for that — reasons that lie deeper than a lack of sleep or laziness on the part of the adolescent. Teens, apparently, require different sleeping patterns than younger children, a fact that could result in changes for American high schools. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has suggested that high schools should consider starting the school day later than they currently do, and the idea has some merit.

"So often," Duncan said recently, "we design school systems that work for adults and not for kids."

Research shows that schedules might not be working for kids. As the National Sleep Foundation writes: "Key changes in sleep patterns and needs during puberty can contribute to excessive sleepiness in adolescents, which can impair daytime functioning. … Adolescent sleep deprivation is largely driven by a conflict between teens' internal biological clocks and the schedules and demands of society."

Joseph Buckhalt, a professor at Auburn University's College of Education who has studied sleep patterns and academic achievement, said, "Children who sleep poorly are doing more poorly on academic performance." And advocacy group Start School Later Inc. claims that starting high school classes at 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. would help students stay awake, improve memory consolidation, and reduce absenteeism and tardiness.

This makes some sense. As anybody who has lived with a teen — or once was a teen — knows, they are going through vast biological changes that alter the way their bodies function. Those changes also alter the ways in which they best learn.

Locally, high schools run under schedules that are typical throughout the nation. Vancouver Public Schools start a zero period for some students at 6:30 a.m., with first period beginning at 7:30 a.m. The day for Evergreen Public Schools begins at 7:45 a.m. School is dismissed shortly after 2 p.m., leaving time for extracurricular activities such as athletics.

Therein lies one of the drawbacks to moving the start of the day for high school students. Athletic practices often last into the early evening, and pushing the daily schedule back one hour will mean teens are arriving home even later. Other concerns involve the coordination of bus schedules for school districts between elementary, middle school, and high school schedules; the impact on daily schedules for teachers; and limitations on after-school jobs for students.

These are valid concerns, and changing school schedules by 60 or 90 minutes would require adjustments that can impact entire families. But some experiments with such changes have proved successful. Nationally, several school districts that have altered schedules over the years have reported improved attendance, more attentiveness, and improved overall health by students.

In this part of the country, Seattle Public Schools have promised to survey parents throughout the district to gauge interest in adjusting school times for the 2014-15 school year, and the Washington state PTA has passed a resolution supporting such changes. The idea is worth considering for Clark County schools, as well.

As Mary A. Carskadon, who has studied the issue at the Brown University School of Medicine, said: "Given that the primary focus of education is to maximize human potential, then a new task before us is to ensure that the conditions in which learning takes place address the very biology of our learners."