Proposal to Push Back High School Start Time in Fairfax County Overlooks Reality

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The first to roll out of the sack was a group that advocates SLEEP -- the Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal. Its members want Fairfax County schools to adopt a later starting time for high school to better synchronize classroom clocks with teenagers' body clocks to promote a healthier lifestyle.

That set off the alarm for WAKE -- Worried About Keeping Extra-curriculars -- another Fairfax group, this one in favor of preserving the current bell schedule because of the hassles a later school day would potentially cause for families, sports schedules and other activities.

We're here to tout our own grass-roots organization (membership: one) called SLUMBER -- School Legislators Understand Massive Budget Erosion, Really -- whose mission statement is actually a mission question: "Criminy, can't we talk about this some other time?"

We have more pressing issues than whether Junior is yawning his way through first period. Chances are, he will do that anyway, whether high school remains at its 7:20 a.m. start time (and 2:10 dismissal) or gets a SLEEP-induced delay to 8:30 or so (with a 3:20 dismissal).

School systems are tightening belts to the point that they also need suspenders. All the pens in the teachers' supply cabinet might as well have red ink. Class sizes are growing to the point that if a student raises a hand to answer a question, it might smack somebody upside the head.

The Fairfax County School Board is expected to make a decision on the proposal this month; other school systems in the past decade, including Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties, have studied similar plans but determined there were too many complications to make them feasible. Fairfax has made that determination in the past. The fact that the flawed proposal has again made it this far in the discussion phase and might linger into the upcoming school year is enough to keep a person up nights.

This initiative would not only change the starting and dismissal times for about 169,000 students in elementary, middle and high school but also could adversely affect family life and community groups that depend on school and park facilities across the county.

The well-meaning SLEEP group,, has science on its side. Research indicates that teens need about nine hours of sleep per night and that their melatonin, or sleep hormone, doesn't kick in until about 11 p.m., according to the Washington-based National Sleep Foundation.

So a better night's sleep is not necessarily as simple as sending Junior to bed earlier. It's teens' biology that can lead to a snooze in biology, although one might think that waking up early, taking a challenging course load, being involved in a sport or activity and then doing homework at night might make a kid weary, whether it's melatonin time or not.

Football coach: Okay, two-a-days start Monday, and we want to beat the heat. Be on the practice field ready to go at 7 a.m.

Player: Sorry, Coach. I can't get here until 9. You know, melatonin and all.

Students would benefit from more shut-eye, and this plan might help some. But a later school start time won't necessarily result in kids' getting a better night's sleep. It will give them the opportunity for a better night's sleep. Will they take advantage of that opportunity? Don't bet your footy pajamas on it. (Don't expect the extra time to result in the bed getting made, either.)

Here's the thing: Teenagers are (often) human. If they know they can sleep an extra hour, they will go to bed later. In fact, if this proposal goes through, for the first few months afterward, they might stay up an extra hour texting their friends about how cool it is to stay up an extra hour. And by the way, chlorine must dilute melatonin, because there sure are a lot of swimmers who are able to tumble out of bed early and function at a high level.

Is the possibility of extra sleep worth the disruption in family life? There's a good chance that Mom and Dad will be out the door before Junior wakes up in the morning. And with classes extending later into the afternoon, athletic practices and other activities will start and end later. Kids will get home later, eat dinner later (perhaps alone), do homework later.

Just as SLEEP is in bed with science, WAKE,, is in bed with reality. It claims that starting the school day later would further complicate complicated lives and could result in less student benefit from sports and other after-school endeavors. Would kids be better served by more time to dream, or, perchance, by more time to pursue those dreams?

Practicing before school would defeat the purpose of the later starting time, and there would be no early bus service to transport students to those early practices, the group argues.

The later start would hinder teams without lighted practice fields. Hinder kids who work after-school jobs to save for college or to help support their families. Hinder teachers who work second jobs or take late-afternoon college classes. Hinder commuters who would get stopped behind more buses during peak traffic times. Hinder kids who might otherwise seek after-school academic help, or club or team affiliation. Hinder families that depend on high school children to watch younger siblings after school. Hinder community groups that use school and park facilities in the late afternoons and evenings.

There's too much to do to punt away time that very likely wouldn't be devoted to sleep. It's like study hall. Sure, schools can offer it, but that doesn't mean it will be used for its intended purpose. Put out containers of milk for students and see which ones get snatched up first, white skim or high-test chocolate. The healthy choice is often the untaken choice.

With a later bell schedule, every weekday would feel like that spring day when clocks are set ahead an hour, and it feels like you'll never get that hour back, which is a daggone shame because you're sure you would have done something great during that 60 minutes.

And hasn't the current bell schedule worked pretty well? All eligible Fairfax high schools appeared on the 2008 Challenge Index, the best-known ranking of U.S. high schools. That 1,400-plus school list comprises the top 5 percent of schools based on college-level testing. Sounds like students' minds are open, not just their yawning mouths.

Don't even sleep on this. Just pull a blanket over it.

Varsity Letter is a weekly column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams at

© 2009 The Washington Post Company