learning ABCs: catching enough Zs?
Proponents say the move could improve attendance,
alleviate student depression, lower drop-out rates and the
frequency of teenage car accidents, and eventually improve
by Dean Paton, The Christian Science Monitor
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SEATTLE – Hannah Lommers-Johnson has attended Nathan Hale High
School, nestled on the bank of Thornton Creek in the city's
north end, for two years. She's drawn to world history, just
discovered a passion for photography, and wants nothing to do
with Occupational Ed, where students learn PowerPoint, and other
digital-world survival tools. She'd rather read or play soccer.
But next year, her junior year, she won't be back. The reason:
Dad doesn't want her sleeping in.
At Nathan Hale, Hannah's erstwhile classmates will start classes
a full hour later come September, at 8:45 a.m. And despite Mr.
Lommers-Johnson's reservations, and the qualms of about 65
percent of Nathan Hale students, many of Hannah's classmates -
and the nation's sleep researchers - are thrilled.
The dichotomous views epitomize the split over a growing
experiment in American education. Thirty-eight school districts
in 18 states have changed start times, according to the National
Sleep Foundation, and another 108 districts are considering the
switch. Opponents - including some teachers, administrators,
most coaches, and many parents - balk at the change in routine,
pointing out that children might still be sleeping when parents
leave for work, and worrying that after-school sports and jobs
will be squeezed for time. Proponents say the move could improve
attendance, alleviate student depression, lower drop-out rates
and the frequency of teenage car accidents, and eventually
improve academic achievement.
When school starts at 7 a.m., the teenage brain is "still
seeking to be asleep," says Kyla Wahlstrom, a researcher at the
University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and
Educational Improvement. "This isn't anything that's under the
control of the students; it's something that has to happen ...
to maximize the development of the brain."
Teens' sleep schedules, researchers say, are just different.
After age 14, about 98 percent of adolescents have a chemical
tendency to get sleepy around 11 p.m., and wake up around 8 or
8:15 a.m., as levels of the neurotransmitter melatonin fall.
For adults, the equivalent of an early-start school day would be
a meeting at 4 or 5 a.m., says Mark Mahowald, Director of the
Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center. "We could function,
but we wouldn't want to be making decisions that were
important," he explains. "In essence, we're sending a very high
percentage of our high school students to school in the last
third of their sleep period."
And so, after six years studying the issue, Nathan Hale
assistant principal Katherine Hutchinson is optimistic. "We hope
we'll be like other districts who've done this and find that
students will come to school more rested and able to participate
more fully, be more alert," she says.
Nathan Hale's decision was inspired by Wahlstrom's research in
Minneapolis, where public schools revamped their start times in
the fall of 1997. As at Nathan Hale, many in Minneapolis opposed
the change scooting high school start times from 7:15 to 8:40,
and dismissal times from 1:45 to 3:30 p.m.
"I thought it was going to screw up athletics," says Kier
Palmer-Klein, a 2000 graduate of Southwest High School. "People
were saying that we'd be running cross-country in the dark and
finishing soccer games after dinner."
But that didn't happen, he says, "and then when I got an extra
hour of sleep, I realized that starting later was a really good
idea.... It made it a lot easier to actually get to class and do
To succeed, Minneapolis revamped its busing schedule. Elementary
school students, who typically fall asleep earlier and wake
before teens, took early busses and began school first. The
district went from a three-tiered busing plan to a five-tiered
system, accommodating a mélange of start times: 8:05, 8:40,
9:10, and 9:40.
But Ashley Lommers-Johnson remains unconvinced. He resents the
decision process, which he sees as stacked against opponents,
and he says 100 percent of the student senate voted against the
"It's not a biological necessity," he says of reports that
teenagers have different sleep needs from everyone else. "It's a
choice those families make" when they let their kids stay up
Mr. Lommers-Johnson withdrew from Nathan Hale's Parent Teacher
Student Association and site council over the issue.
"You don't go forward with such a radical proposal with the
community as split as it is," he says.
Wahlstrom and Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human
behavior at Brown University and a leading sleep researcher, say
those reservations are a prime reason more schools haven't
instituted later starts: It's complex and threatening for
communities to alter old rhythms.
"If schools don't do some education in advance of making this
change, it can have negative outcomes," Dr. Carskadon says. "It
just can get out of control unless there's some groundwork
Since the Minnesota high schools shifted their schedules,
academic performance has improved, if only slightly. Wahlstrom's
studies have found that attendance is up and attrition down.
"There is significantly less reported depression, fewer peer
relationship problems, fewer fights with parents," she says.
And though critics warned that teens would simply stay up an
hour later each night, nullifying the sleep gain, Wahlstrom's
research found that Minneapolis teens were in fact getting about
one extra hour of sleep nightly.
Over half of the district's high school teachers report that
students are more alert during the first two class periods. And
participation in athletics has remained the same.
At Nathan Hale, sophomore Alison Driver turns to deductive logic
in considering the plan: "If your mind's not going to kick in
till 8:45 and you're starting school at 7:45, well, you're