Dear Homeroom:

How about telling parents about the summer reading requirement in Montgomery County schools? Many parents do not realize it exists because in some schools the list is handed to the kids, and if they decide to ignore it, the parents never know. I think most parents would assist with the program if they knew it existed.

Regina Carelli

Silver Spring

Just about all middle and high school students in Montgomery County are expected to read over the summer, and they should have gotten some kind of list before the school year ended. At least one school just told students to "read one novel, one biography and one magazine article." Others gave lists of books that have been approved by the county and told students to pick two or three.

To prove they have read the books, some students are expected to write reports or make posters. Some just need to fill out a little form.

Parents who haven't seen their children's lists, or students who can't find them anymore, shouldn't despair. Lists should be available at the libraries and book stores nearest their schools.

I'd love to hear from students about their summer reading. What's good, what's not, and why? Have you read anything you thought you would hate but turned out great?

Start Times and Student Health

Dear Homeroom:

Thank you for writing about the issue of changing the starting times for Montgomery County high school students (June 24). I am concerned that you understated the health risk that sleep deprivation poses to teenagers.

Indeed, research conducted at Brown University, Stanford University, and the University of California has demonstrated the harmful effects of sleep deprivation on teenagers and the relationship between sleep deprivation and academic performance. The school start time study done at the University of Minnesota concludes that although some difficulties have arisen due to starting some schools later in the morning, overall there are clear positives emerging from the first year's data.

You can see the entire report on the Web at http://carei.coled.umn.edu.

Mona M. Signer,

member, Montgomery County Board of Education

You are raising two separate issues. One has to do with the sleep needs of teenagers and the effect of sleep deprivation on student achievement. On this, the research seems fairly clear. Teenagers need a lot of sleep--some researchers estimate that they need as much as an hour more than younger children do--and their academic achievement and health suffer when they are sleep-deprived. Other things suffer as well, such as their relationships with friends and family members and their judgment when it comes to things like resisting the urge to drive fast around sharp curves.

The second question is whether starting high school later would result in teenagers sleeping more and thus achieving more academically. It very well might, but here the research is very sketchy, and the University of Minnesota study you cite says as much.

Although the study reports that students in a Minneapolis school with a later start time said they had higher grades than students in a school with an earlier start time, it also says the late-start students may be benefiting from grade inflation.

The study identifies several factors as contributing to adolescent sleep patterns: "parental involvement in setting bed time and awaking teens, curfews, school schedules, part-time employment, use of alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs, and development of circadian rhythms. For example, parents of even 12- to 13-year-olds frequently stop setting bed times and enforcing wake-up times."

In other words, teenagers probably would sleep more and thus achieve more if they went to bed earlier, drank fewer caffeinated and alcoholic drinks and worked more on their schoolwork and less at fast-food restaurants.

At least one researcher has said the enforcement of child labor laws, to ensure that students don't work too many hours, is important to student achievement. And other researchers have said that the amount of time teenagers spend watching television is a drag on their academic achievement. Starting high school later in the morning might simply allow teenagers to do more of those things that reduce their ability to achieve.

The point is to keep our attention on student learning and achievement and what it takes for students to achieve at high levels.

Certainly, it is important for students to get enough sleep, and parents and high school students need to organize their lives to allow about nine hours of sleep a night.

Educating parents and kids about sleep needs might be more effective--and certainly cheaper--than buying buses and hiring bus drivers so that we can start high school later in the morning.

There are so many things to spend money on that we know will help kids learn, why spend money on things we don't yet know will help learning?

Senior Experiment?

Dear Homeroom:

Although most educators agree that requiring high school students to attend classes before sunrise is tantamount to torture, MCPS has not resolved the high school starting time dilemma. Here's a simple suggestion that might help 25 percent of the high school student body:

Many or most seniors do not need a full day of classes in order to satisfy graduation requirements. Some choose work/study programs or early release and go off campus to afternoon jobs.

As a pilot program, some schools could offer Senior Zero Hour. Seniors would volunteer to forgo one hour of education in favor of an extra hour of sleep. Sleep would become a first-hour, no-credit elective.

The "seniors only" status of zero hour might give underclassmen a ray of hope they will one day be able to sleep longer.

Seniors who wish to carry a full academic load could ignore Senior Zero Hour and continue to show up at 7:25.

Senior Zero Hour would give the appearance that the district is doing something about addressing the problems involved with early starting time. Five hours additional sleep per week, or 180 hours per year (that's a total of 7.5 days!) would be enjoyed by participants.

Joan Graham

Rockville

Your letter shows how easy it is to talk about school issues without ever mentioning learning and student achievement.

I know a lot of seniors feel like they can blow off their last year of school.

But this may be one of their last opportunities to learn something for free. For the rest of their lives, if they want to learn so much as how to macrame a belt, they will have to pay someone to teach them. I don't know that we should encourage people to sleep through so much opportunity.

Question of Methodology

Dear Homeroom:

I thought the methodology that you suggested to determine whether or not high school students would do better if they started classes later was good. The problem is that comparing test results of students who take math or foreign language in the first period versus later in the day does not tell us whether high school students are tired all day as a result of getting up early.

There might not be a noticeable difference between how well they do in the morning versus later in the day. It could be that they would do better all day if they got up later.

Kathy Sheehan

Bethesda

You're absolutely right, but I was trying to come up with a research project high school students could do. We really won't have an answer on this until some school system in the country does a really serious study, matching schools for curriculum, demographics and baseline academic data, starting half of the schools early and half of them late, and then studying the results for several years. Such a study would be expensive, so my guess is, it will never be done.

Now for the final say on this topic.

Tired of the Whole Issue

Dear Homeroom:

I've followed the subject of later starting times for high school for some time now. In the opinion of a pretty old guy, the whole issue is stupid. As kids, we were out of bed and ready for a 7 a.m. bus every morning.

No one had bad grades as a result, and no one slept through school. Every October, we give the proponents of later start times an opportunity to prove their argument, called the end of daylight saving time.

But within days, any perceived good from the later time is gone.

My theory: As long as kids' priorities are to work or sit glued to the TV until a certain time, and then do assignments for the next day, the problem will persist. It's time for parents to make learning the priority for their children. Only then should jobs and entertainment be given consideration. That will go a lot further to solving the problem than later starting times.

Al Plyler

Frederick

Correction

In the June 24 Homeroom, I misidentified the organization that recommended that school systems have students complete first-year algebra in the eighth grade, or the ninth grade at the latest. The Southern Regional Education Board, which consists of southern governors and their appointees, made the recommendation. You can find its reports at www.sreb.org.

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