Early Bedtimes Work, Too, for Sleep-Deprived Teens

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

As the mother of 17- and 19-year-olds, I have much firsthand experience with sleep-deprived teenagers. In the end, after many hours and much research and discussion, I have changed my mind about the effort to start the high school day later. I have come to believe the massive disruption to teachers, families and the community at large (everything from private gyms and studios to babysitters to adolescents driving during rush hour) does not warrant the extra hour of sleep for teenagers.

The School Board is considering a 2010 change to start times for every school in Fairfax County, with the goal of delaying the opening bell to 8:45 a.m. By 55 percent to 45 percent, the 2007 Transportation Task Force recommended the change, which is endorsed by the Fairfax County Council of PTAs and the organization Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP). To be well informed, residents should be aware of the following findings from the task force's minority report.

· Later high school start times lead to no statistically significant improvement in academic performance. Who gets higher grades? Students who go to bed earlier, according to a study by Amy R. Wolfson and Mary A. Carskadon.

· Using bright computer screens at night makes it harder for students to fall asleep. Computer use suppresses melatonin, a brain chemical that helps sleep.

· A schedule change alone will not solve the problem of tired teenagers. High school students need 2.25 more hours of sleep than they get now. The new schedule would make up about half that deficit.

· A bus schedule change will cost millions at a time when a tight budget has the School Board increasing class size and eliminating academic programs. Cost estimates are not available yet, but the 2006 study estimated cost increases at $9.4 million to $12.2 million.

· Fairfax, with 166,000 public school students, is much larger than other districts that have changed high school start times. Changes have succeeded in some districts, including Valparaiso, Ind., 6,000 students; Edina, Minn., 7,500; Arlington, 18,000; McKinney, Tex., 20,000; Minneapolis, 36,000; Milwaukee, 85,000; and DeKalb, Ga., 96,000.

Many large school districts that studied the issue concluded that costs and logistics are prohibitive, including Norfolk, 33,000 students; Seattle, 46,000; Anne Arundel County, 74,000; Albuquerque, 90,000; Montgomery County, 146,000; and Detroit, 100,000-plus.

· Changes to the schedule will affect work schedules of teachers and staff, club sports and school-based athletics, morning and afternoon child-care needs for elementary and middle school students, availability of teenagers for after-school care of younger kids, midday field trips, breakfast for students with free and reduced-price meals, student commutes in heavier rush hour traffic, student work opportunities and parent work hours.

We've been here before. Fairfax public schools studied this issue in 1991, 1998 and 2006. Each time a study recommended no schedule change.

The 1991 report unanimously rejected a schedule change because of the high cost: The "committee raised numerous concerns about the impact on intermediate and high school activities, child care, safety, special programs, vocational education, and time available for homework and community activities."

The 1998 group rejected the change because of the massive disruption to the entire community: "Like the legendary Gordian Knot, which could not be untied by conventional means, the Task Force was unable to identify a way to change bell schedules that would not require other significant changes."

An independent consultant in 2006 noted the great risks and increased costs: A "shift to later secondary school start times can be accomplished for an incremental cost increase of between 10 and 13 percent of current transportation costs."

Whatever the final decision, these conclusions need to be available. Research from all points of view is available on the task force Web site, http://www.fcps.edu/fts/taskforce07/documents/index.htm. Look before you leap.

Patricia Velkoff

Parent; member,

Transportation Task Force;

chairman, task force

minority report

Fairfax County

I reserved the whole column for your letter because, in my usual ignorance, I was unaware of any significant parental opposition to the later high school start time proposal.

Many of your arguments make sense. I still lean toward the position of SLEEP, which has gotten space in this column and has among its leaders my former Washington Post colleague Sandra Evans.

As a late riser, blessed to work for a morning newspaper where hardly anyone shows up before 10 a.m., I always felt sorry for my kids -- and me, their chauffeur -- when they headed off to high school at dawn. But you have done a great job buttressing the other side of this issue.

A small group of parents, representing all incomes and ethnicities in the system, was invited by the School Board's linkage committee to discuss the proposal in study circles in June. Most high school parents liked the current schedule but said they could support the proposed change. Parents of middle school students, who would start at 9:20 a.m., voiced strong opposition, school spokeswoman Barbara Hunter said.

Every district in this area has talked about the sleep deprivation problem among high school students. I would like to hear from more readers on this.

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