Is Fairfax’s new sleep-in program for some students fair?

High school students get on the school bus before the sun is up. (By Susan Biddle/For The Washington Post)
High school students get on the school bus before the sun is up. (By Susan Biddle/For The Washington Post)

Suppose you heard about a special program for students who get to go to school late so they can sleep in a little longer, but it is only for teens who can get the required permission and have the ability to get to school on their own — without school buses.

You just might think it is an elitist program for kids who own their own car or who have parents who can drive them or pay for transportation. And you’d be right.

That’s what is going on in Fairfax County Public Schools, where parents have asked the school board nearly 10 times in the last 24 years to let high school students start school later than 7:20 a.m. because  research clearly shows that teens are biologically programmed for a late-to-bed and late-to-rise schedule. Some of these kids get picked up at their homes by buses at 5:45 a.m.

Instead of finding a solution that would benefit all students,  my colleague T. Rees Shapiro reported, the system gave in to parent pressure by making it easy for about 650 of the system’s more privileged kids — 5 percent of the senior class — to come to school later, with numbers growing as word of the program spreads. It allows students on track for graduation, and with permission from parents and principal, to drop up to two early  classes they don’t need for graduation and come to school later.

If you’ve ever walked through a high school early in the morning, you will see a lot of kids practically sleep-walking through early classes and downing coffee to try to wake up. Why?

Sleep researchers have discovered that a teen’s body is uniquely different from those of other age groups; 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.  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 many as two-thirds of high school students get seven hours or less a night.

Scores of school systems around the country have moved up high school start times, and some districts in the greater Washington D.C. area are already there: Loudoun County high schools, for example, start at 9 a.m.; D.C. public schools at 8:45 a.m.  In Arlington, the three traditional high schools start at 8:19 a.m.

Howard County parents are now pushing for a time change, and the superintendent of Montgomery County, Joshua Starr, just recommended that high schools move their start time from 7:25 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. Research that his administration conducted on the subject found that more than one-third of teens surveyed said they dozed off or lost focus in early classes two to four times a week.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that kids will do better if they get more sleep, but you know for sure that they won’t do worse, and optimizing their ability to succeed should be what school reform is all about. It may not be easy to change school start times, but the decision to do so should be a no-brainer.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | October 6, 2013