- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

Sixteen-year-old Maddy Gunter of Great Falls pries herself out of bed weekday mornings at 5:15 to board her 6 a.m. school bus. The bus drops her at Fairfax County’s Langley High School at 6:50 a.m., and for the next half-hour before classes begin, she dozes with batches of other drowsy students lining the halls.

“Most of my friends are zombies the first half of the day; we’re all on autopilot,” Maddy says. Though she usually goes to bed by midnight, following three hours with the cross-country team and hours of homework, many of her classmates go to bed even later. Maddy reports a majority of students drink coffee and soda to stay awake in school, but many fall asleep in class anyway.

“Everyone’s in a daze,” she adds.

National Sleep Foundation surveys show 85 percent of American teens get less than the minimum amount of sleep needed and 15 percent of high school students fall asleep in class. The typical teen gets about seven hours of sleep on school nights instead of the nine to 10 hours the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

In the past decade, medical evidence has mounted that circadian rhythms shift during puberty to a late-to-sleep and late-to-wake cycle. On average, adolescents cannot fall asleep until about 11 p.m., when their bodies start releasing melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone.

Because early start times conflict with this later sleep-wake pattern, several dozen school districts nationwide, including Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church, have begun ringing morning bells later. Fairfax County, the nation’s 12th-largest school system, may soon do the same.

Studies have documented the positive effects of high schools switching to sleep-friendly start times. Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI), extensively researched Minneapolis-area schools that shifted bell times in 1996-1997 to 8:30 a.m. or later.

Ms. Wahlstrom, who holds a doctorate in educational policy and administration, says later start times yielded greater student wakefulness all day, teen feelings of improved self-efficacy, easier-to-live-with teens, higher student alertness in the first two hours of class, decreased depression, an upward trend in grades and fewer high school dropouts.

The CAREI studies also discovered that later starts led to better attendance, less tardiness, fewer discipline or mood problems, and one additional hour of sleep per night. These benefits accrued to all students regardless of socioeconomic status, which Ms. Wahlstrom says “makes sense because it is a matter of biology.”

An American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report in the June 2005 Pediatrics concludes, “Studies clearly suggest that shortened total sleep and irregular sleep schedules are highly associated with poor school performance for adolescents.” The report identifies early school start times as a factor contributing to teen sleep deprivation.

Primary author Dr. Richard Millman, co-chairman of AAP’s Working Group on Sleepiness in Adolescents, says the group’s meta-analysis of hundreds of articles “gives credibility to the effort to push start times back.”

Co-author Dr. Carl Hunt, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, adds, “There is this macho sense that if you’re tough and you want to get ahead, you can get by on less sleep, but that’s just not true.”

Area teens starting high school classes before 7:30 a.m. agree. In Fairfax County, Langley High sophomore Lauren Radder says she falls asleep in class a couple of times a week despite drinking coffee before boarding her 6:20 a.m. bus, sipping soda during the day and napping after school.

When senior Megan Bane is asked how many of her schoolmates complain about being tired, she laughs and says, “All of them. But kids go to the school nurse because if you say you don’t feel well, they let you sleep half an hour. Lots of kids do this every morning.”

In Montgomery County, where high school commences at 7:25 a.m., Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) junior Lucy Bascom struggles out of bed by 5:45 a.m. to catch her 6:45 a.m. bus. She admits to frequently nodding off in class. Kelsey Siegel, a junior at Walter Johnson High, notices five or six students snoozing in each class.

The situation is different in Arlington County, where high schools do not start until 8:15 a.m. After a study indicated “starting school too early had a negative effect on the academic achievement of high school students,” Arlington moved start times 45 minutes later in 2001.

Chris Colt, Washington-Lee High School’s nurse for seven years, estimates a 60 percent to 70 percent decrease in students coming to the clinic with health complaints since the change. She says there has been significantly “less falling asleep in class, less depression, less crankiness, less dragging around and looking tired.”

Kathy Wills, director of planning and evaluation for Arlington schools, recently analyzed survey results on the altered hours. Ms. Wills, who holds a doctorate in program evaluation, says the percentages of students and teachers reporting that students were ready to start school, prepared and alert for first period, and participating in class discussions all increased the year after the bell change.

Teacher Catherine Colglazier is in her fifth year at the magnet Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology after 10 years at Fairfax County’s McLean High School. She calls high schoolers “The Starbucks Generation,” noting that many students drink coffee from nearby Starbucks and “pop caffeine” from school vending machines.

“We shouldn’t make them come to school so early,” Ms. Colglazier says with a sigh. “It’s ludicrous to think they can focus to deconstruct a complex poem … or take a math test at 7:15 a.m.”

The cities of Alexandria and Falls Church, like Arlington, recently restructured school hours. Alexandria moved high school start times from 7:45 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. in 2001, announcing it would “allow students extra sleep time, which research has shown is critical to high school student performance.”

John Porter, principal of Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School for 21 years, says delaying bell times benefited the community. “Even a short period of time — half an hour — makes a big difference. I see kids functioning better with the later start. There is less yawning and probably less tardiness now, and it seems the kids are more attentive and ready to get on with the job.”

Parental reaction to the change has been favorable, says Mr. Porter, noting that parents were more concerned about keeping unsupervised teens out of trouble after school than about early starts, so they like the later dismissal.

In Falls Church, the school board voted in March to start high school at 8 a.m. in 2005-2006. Approval of this quarter-hour delay was based partly on high schoolers’ sleep patterns.

This shift brings Falls Church closer to high school bell times in the District (8:30 a.m.), Prince George’s County (7:45 to 9:30 a.m.) and Loudoun County (8:50 a.m.), which are better synchronized with teen sleep rhythms.

Montgomery and Prince William counties, however, have thus far not pushed high school times later. In Prince William County, a committee has been formed to consider adjusting the 7:30 start time, but no decision has been reached.

Montgomery County addressed start times in 1998 through a Bell Times Study Group. Though the Board of Education recognized research suggesting teenagers were at risk for sleep deprivation, no changes were made.

Board-certified sleep doctor Helene Emsellem of Chevy Chase is convinced the only way to fix teen sleep deprivation is to start high schools later.

“When we look back in 10 years and think about the education they could have had and the problems we had dealing with irritable teens, we’ll wonder what we were doing — it’s so physiologically incorrect to have teens waking up at 6 for school,” Dr. Emsellem says.

Dr. Emsellem rattles off a list of problems adolescent sleep deprivation causes — mood disorders, suicidality, obesity, type 2 diabetes, acne, an inability to learn and a “spectacular incidence of fatal accidents in drivers under age 25.”

Cornell University psychology professor James Maas, author of “Power Sleep,” enumerates other side effects of poor sleep — illness; use of caffeine, nicotine and other stimulants; and teens “burnt out” before college. “Starting high schools later is a tremendously important piece of the pie,” Mr. Maas says.

He explains that functional MRI brain scans show the brain fails to properly “light up” while performing mental tasks after minimal sleep deprivation. “You can’t teach kids whose brains are shut down,” he says. “We are just wasting educational dollars. It’s like taking hundreds of educational dollars in your hand and setting a match to it.”

Dr. William C. Dement, world-renowned Stanford University pioneer of sleep medicine, declares, “Nobody understands that adolescents are out of sync with their circadian rhythms when high schools and middle schools start so early and that this really does cause sleep deprivation.”

Fairfax County is seeking to solve this problem. In February, the Fairfax County School Board approved $150,000 for a consultant to analyze cost-effective ways to align bell times with student sleep cycles.

The biggest obstacle is the multitiered bus schedule in the county, where approximately 1,100 buses take three hours to shuttle more than 101,000 students each morning.

Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent of transportation for Fairfax County schools, says one advantage of picking up high schoolers first is that buses can drop them off unsupervised and proceed immediately to other runs, whereas middle and elementary students must sit on buses until supervision is available.

“I like the notion of high school going later. I think it’s a great idea,” Mr. Tistadt says, “but we need someone to come in here and figure out the different runs and configurations.”

Fairfax County School Board member Stuart Gibson confides, “We are not helping middle and high school kids by starting so early. … Adolescent health and academic achievement are very, very powerful goals we ought to be working toward. But we don’t want to achieve this at the expense of other issues important to families,” such as class size, teacher salaries and cutbacks in extracurricular and academic programs to offset the cost of busing changes.

Pressure on school boards intensifies as researchers illuminate problems caused by inadequate sleep. The recent spate of teenage driving fatalities in Washington’s environs may further motivate local schools to adjust morning bells for groggy teens. However, delaying start times is not a panacea for sleep debt in teens navigating a world filled with round-the-clock Internet, computer and video games, television, cell phones, instant and text messaging, and other technologies.

Mary A. Carskadon, director of the E.P. Bradley Hospital’s Sleep Research Laboratory and a psychiatry professor at Brown Medical School, concludes, “My colleagues and I think the greatest gap in education is about sleep. It should start in kindergarten. The true base of the health pyramid is sleep. …

“There’s no time to catch up on weekends, or even to be young,” continues Ms. Carskadon, who holds a doctorate in neuro- and biobehavioral sciences.

Perhaps this is why Langley High graduate Carina Reichelt muses, “When my friends and I talk or think about college, all we say is, ‘Aahh, sleep.’ ”

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