Parents, Teenagers Think More Zzzz's May Yield Some A's

Carly O'Loughlin, left, prepares to board the Robinson Secondary School bus 55 minutes after waking up at 5:25 a.m.
Carly O'Loughlin, left, prepares to board the Robinson Secondary School bus 55 minutes after waking up at 5:25 a.m. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

Carly O'Loughlin's alarm buzzed at 5:25 a.m. recently, marking the start of the 14-year-old's finely orchestrated morning routine. She slipped into jeans, a pink sweatshirt and a sparkly heart-shaped necklace and swept her hair into a ponytail.

Downstairs at her family's Fairfax Station house, Carly plopped some batter -- made on Sunday night to keep weekday preparation to a minimum -- into a waffle maker. Her mother, Luanne, reached into the refrigerator and offered a drink.

"Give me a Frappuccino," Carly said. "Mocha."

A few minutes later, carrying her Starbucks coffee and a paper plate with the half-eaten waffle, Carly hopped into her father's car, and the pair drove down the still-dark streets to a bus stop a few blocks away. At 6:20 a.m., the bus pulled up, and Carly was on her way to Robinson Secondary School.

Carly, an eighth-grader who complains she's frequently groggy during early-morning classes, said she would prefer it if school "started at 8:30 and ended at 3."

"I wake up because of all the people" in class, she said. "But I'm still tired."

Carly and her parents are among a growing number of Fairfax County residents who want the School Board to push back middle and high school start times. At most county high schools, including Robinson, the first bell rings at 7:20 a.m., and some students board buses an hour before that. Teenagers, those residents say, just aren't made to start their days so early. They say the schedule results in cranky students who aren't always ready to learn, as well as stressed-out families.

"People talk about their children's health, how they are sick all the time, tired all the time. How family life is deteriorating," said Sandy Evans, a Fairfax parent and co-founder of the group Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP). "This is terrible for high school kids."

In recent years, several school districts around the country have decided to ring the opening bell a little later, after some studies showed that more shut-eye benefits children. A 2001 study of Minneapolis students showed that after the district moved its start time from 7:15 to 8:40 a.m., students got slightly better grades, were less likely to miss classes and experienced less depression.

Wilton, Conn., pushed back high school start times in 2003, and Denver schools have developed flexible schedules that allow students to start later. In 2000, the Arlington School Board voted to open high school 45 minutes later -- changing the start time from 7:30 to 8:15 a.m. In Maryland, Anne Arundel County officials are considering a proposal to move back the 7:17 a.m. high school start.

Doctors agree that children and teenagers need more sleep than adults; 9 1/2 hours or more a night is recommended for a typical teenager. But research also has shown that adolescents have different sleep patterns from adults, making them bleary-eyed in the morning and more alert in the evening.

"I don't know how anyone is supposed to function at their best starting at 7:30, especially adolescents. Their internal clocks really are shifted by about two hours," said Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and co-author of "Take Charge of Your Child's Sleep." "If we could get high schools to start after 8 or even 8:30, it would line up a little more with their biology."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company