When I first heard about the serious health effects of students getting up before dawn to start high school, my daughter was in middle school. The idea of a school day beginning at 7:17 a.m. seemed surreal. Now I can assure you it's real. Her alarm goes off at 5:40 a.m. every school day.
Kids attending public schools in Maryland are having their deepest sleep phase interrupted by a shrill alarm clock—and dragging themselves out of bed in the dark for school start times in the 7 o'clock hour. Bus runs in our area begin around 6:20 a.m.
This is not about a leisurely start to the day, though. Sleep scientists are explaining the shifted circadian rhythm of the adolescent and teenager, and warning of the connection between disrupted sleep patterns and a long list of potential harm to children’s physical and mental health. Risks include cardiovascular damage, obesity, mood disorders including anxiety and depression, even suicidal thoughts. The medical community has been speaking out about this for over a decade and the American Academy of Pediatrics is developing a Policy Statement on school start times for middle and high school students based on sound scientific evidence.
Academic achievement and equity are also impacted by early schedules. A recent Brookings Institute report identified later school start times as one of the three changes schools could make for the greatest positive impact on achievement. These effects are approximately twice as great for disadvantaged children. Schools that have made this change see reductions in absenteeism and tardiness—important factors in closing the achievement gap and increasing graduation rates.
It turns out that local groups all over the country have been concerned about their schools' early start times and are lobbying their own school boards for change. School districts in at least fourteen states have successfully moved or are planning a move to a later start time, including: Wilton, CT; Palo Alto, CA; Colorado Springs, CO; Fayette, KY; Lawrence, IN; Duxbury, MA; Arlington, VA and Minneapolis, MN. So far, communities here in Maryland have been unsuccessful in convincing their school boards that students' health and well-being should count for more than bus schedules and entrenched routines.
In just a few short months, Terra Snider and Maribel Ibrahim, the co-founders of Start School Later, have put together a classic grass-roots movement. The website is packed with information and links to current research; they’ve connected with other community groups across the country through social media sites like Patch, and started a national petition to get this movement going.
There are now five of us on the steering board and more than sixty active members and an advisory board packed with researchers, scientists, health care professionals and educators, and a dedicated and growing group of members. In the last month, there’s been coverage on TV, radio and major newspapers and we have signed up almost 6,000 names on the petition, hand-delivered each week to lawmakers in Washington, DC.
When the idea of changing school schedules come up, some parents voice valid concerns about how it will impact their families. The fact is that the current early start times were imposed by school boards gradually, in 10- or 15-minute chunks over the course of several years, without any community input or consultation. Families adjusted their schedules. If a later start time was based on science and with the health, safety and academic success of students in mind, wouldn’t we be willing to adjust our schedules once again?
After years of working independently, collecting research and trying to smash the inertia of local school boards unwilling to tackle this change, concerned parents across the country have an opportunity to join together and work for change. Maybe our kids can be the first in a generation to have a healthy school schedule based on what teens need to thrive and learn.