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Does High School Start Too Early? More Researchers Say Yes, Call For Change

The Washington Post /

Thousands of local students will head back to class in a few weeks. And as their summer break ends, so too will their ability to sleep in. 

High schoolers in Duval County, for the most part, will be starting class next month at the extremely early 7:15 AM. School for the upper grades will let out at 2:00 PM.

Some education advocates and child development experts say that's too early. In fact, there's actually a growing movement to push back high school start times, and it's all research-based. 

Studies have shown that changing adolescent sleep patterns can have profound consequences for education. With classes in most high schools in the United States starting at around 7:15 AM, high school students tend to rise at about 6:00 AM to catch the bus. But during their first two hours of school, teens' brains and bodies are still in a biological sleep mode. The loss of adequate sleep each night also results in a “sleep debt” for most teens. Teens who are sleep-deprived or functioning with a sleep debt are shown to be more likely to experience symptoms such as depression, difficulty relating to peers and parents, and are more likely to use alcohol and other drugs.

Two Minneapolis-area school districts decided to shift secondary school start times to 8:30 AM or later based on emerging medical research showing adolescents have a natural sleep pattern that leads to a late-to-bed, late-to-rise cycle. Medical researchers found this cycle is part of the maturation of the endocrine system. From the onset of puberty until late teen years, the brain chemical melatonin, which is responsible for sleepiness, is secreted from approximately 11:00 PM until approximately 8:00 AM, nine hours later. This secretion is based on human circadian rhythms. In other words, typical teens are not able to fall asleep much before 11:00 PM, and their brains will remain in sleep mode until about 8:00 AM, regardless of what time they go to bed.

"Think of it like this," says Dr. Erin Richman, a specialist in adolescent developmental psychology at FSCJ,"it'd be like asking adults to start work every morning at 3:00 AM. Would you want to do that? Imagine how tired you'd be. That's what the 7:00 AM start time is like for most teenagers."

High schools that have moved start times back to 8:00 or 8:30 AM are now known as "sleep-friendly schools."

And according to the National Sleep Foundation's 2002 Sleep in America poll, 80% of respondents said high schools should start no earlier than 8:00 AM each day; nearly one-half of these respondents (47%) said start times should be between 8:00 and 8:30 AM. Only 17% of those polled said high school classes should begin before 8:00 AM.

The national organization "Start School Later" is lobbying for more schools to reconsider start times. And here in Jacksonville, WJCT has learned it's being looked at. While there are no schedule changes planned for the current school year, DCPS spokeswoman Marsha Oliver says the district and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti may be open to reviewing the matter at some point.

"This is a topic that Dr. Vitti certainly understands and has committed to exploring in the near future," Oliver said.

Melissa Ross joined WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. During her career as a television and radio news anchor and reporter, Melissa has won four regional Emmys for news and feature reporting.