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Answer Sheet
Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 06/13/2012

Fairfax asleep on high school start time

This just can’t be so hard. Eight times in the last 24 years, the Fairfax County School Board has studied whether to let high school students start school later than 7:20 a.m. because teens are biologically programmed for a late-to-bed and late-to-rise schedule.

Yes, I said eight times in the last 24 years.


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And now, yet again, the board has set up a work group to write a request for proposal so that they can hire a consultant who can then spend time figuring out whether and how to change school start times so kids don’t go to school like walking zombies. (You can read about the work group here, on my colleague Emma Brown’s Virginia Schools Insider blog.)

Being deliberate is a good and important thing, and it makes sense for the school board to be careful about proceeding with this. But being deliberate and careful is not an excuse for standing still.

(Did I mention eight times in the last 24 years?)

As it is now, most Fairfax high schools expect students to be in their chairs to start their first class at 7:20 a.m.— and some get picked up at 5:45 a.m. (Yes, 5:45 a.m.) High schools in Arlington open nearly an hour later, and in Loudoun, most start at 9 a.m.

The National Sleep Foundation says that American teens need about 9¼ hours of sleep a night, but only 8 percent of them are getting it. As much as two-thirds of high school students get seven hours or less a night.

Over the past dozen years or so, researchers have learned that a teen’s body is different from those of younger and older people. Most teens can’t easily fall asleep until about 11 p.m., experts say, and their brains stay in sleep mode until at least 8 a.m. This helps explain why so many high school students stagger into school clutching cups of coffee, hoping the caffeine will wake them up.

Dozens of school systems around the country have changed to later high school start times, and a number of benefits have been cited in some of them, including an improvement in academic performance as well as a drop in tardiness.

Fairfax recently announced a change in start times at several dozen schools next fall, most of them elementary schools. Some of the changes amount to as little as five minutes, while others are up to 40 minutes. Parents complained.

So it is clear that the school board is walking a fine line trying to find start times that make sense, won’t upset families and won’t cost much or any new money.

Still, it is the 21st century and it’s time to stop ignoring the science that tell us that teens should start school later than they now do in Fairfax. We don’t need a consultant to review what we already know.

Fairfax is one of the finest school systems in the country. Surely there are people in the system already who know how to change bus schedules and manage the change this will cause to schools and parents.

The school board just needs to go ahead and do it. Eight times in 24 years is enough.

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By  |  06:00 AM ET, 06/13/2012

 
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