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Correction to This Article
This article about possible changes in Fairfax County school schedules gave an incorrect time for student Lindsey Bush's religion class. She attends the church-sponsored class before Fairfax High School's 7:20 a.m. start time.
Few People Are Sleeping Through Fairfax's School Schedule Debate

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009

A 9 o'clock bedtime would be helpful for Lindsey Bush, 16, a sophomore at Fairfax High who rises in the dark at 5 a.m. to get to her religion class by 7:20 a.m. But with three hours of Advanced Placement history homework, she goes to bed a lot later.

The result: She's tired all the time.

Fairfax County students are known for striving, for loading up on homework-heavy advanced classes and for pushing themselves in sports and other activities. Easing the wear and tear on almost 50,000 Fairfax teenagers by helping them refuel with an extra hour of sleep is the goal of a five-year effort to push back high school start times.

But many teenagers, even if they admit to drifting off in class, are reluctant to change their schedules, even for an extra hour of sleep. There is only so much time in the day for cherished after-school activities -- a roster that could include swim team, English Honors Society, Science Olympiad, Science Fair, History Honors Society, Model United Nations, junior varsity Math League or all of the above.

The current schedule "is easier to live with," said Lindsey, who balances church activities with homework, her school newspaper and family time.

Almost 2,000 parents and some students turned out at seven community meetings across the county last week to register their concerns about or support for the initiative, which would alter the schedules for all 169,000 Fairfax students, not just high-schoolers. Results from a school system survey on the proposal will be released next week, but some teens are speaking out against the plan that is supposed to help them.

Arvin Ahmadi, the student representative on the School Board, reported that, defying all stereotypes of sleep-craving adolescents, a strong majority of the School Advisory Council opposed rearranging start times.

The board will take up the issue at a work session next Monday. Several board members said they are likely to delay the decision for another year or abandon the effort entirely, given the range and complexity of concerns that have emerged since the transportation department said in January that it could make the necessary changes in the bus schedule at no additional cost. Opponents have organized on every side, citing problems with scheduling sports activities, day-care plans, work schedules or traffic.

Quillan Heim, 15, a ninth-grader at Fairfax High, is among the teens who support the change. He said his energy level is lower since he switched this year from a middle school schedule that allowed him to sleep an hour longer. He needs that energy to practice the cello and row on the crew team. "He's way grumpier at 6 a.m. than he is at 7 a.m.," added his mother, Pam Jones, who also supports the plan.

Under the proposal, the first bell for most high schools would move to 8:30 from 7:20 a.m. Elementary schools would start between 7:50 and 9:25, instead of between 8 and 9:15, and most middle schools would start at 9:40, rather than between 7:20 and 8:05.

Proponents say that the plan needs work but that activities can be rescheduled and students will be more alert and efficient. They say the health benefits outweigh the difficulties, particularly given signs of strain that many teens are showing. Thirty-one percent of teens in a 2008 Fairfax County survey said they had experienced depression, a slightly higher rate than the national average.

"Our expectations are so high, and getting into college is so competitive and hard," said Phyllis Payne, co-founder of the parent-led initiative to give teens more sleep. "If you are well-rested, the chances of you dealing with the stress or the pressure is much better. One night, if you do not sleep well, you are cranky or more easily lose your temper or get frustrated. For them, the sleep deprivation is chronic every single day."

Helene Emsellem, director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, said research shows that teenagers need at least 8 1/2 hours of sleep to be alert and that sleep-deprived teens are less likely to use good judgment, drive safely or succeed in school.

"The restorative nature of sleep crosses the boundaries of mood, cognition, learning and weight control," she said.

The School Board must weigh the stresses and well-being of its high school students and the rest of the community. "We are going to be cautious about moving forward with anything. . . . I don't think we will be ready for that in March," said board Chairman Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon).

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