By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
You snooze, you lose?
Research shows snoozing helps teens gain in academic achievement, so some districts changed the bell schedule — or are planning to do so — to give students more shut-eye.
While changing to a later start time proved controversial with staff at some schools, most educators agree that students aren’t getting enough sleep. Bus rides that begin before dawn’s early light and classes starting as early as 7 a.m. result in yawns and nodding heads, they say.
“Every day I see kids who are affected by sleep issues,” says Cara Ramsay, a Temecula Valley High School English teacher. “They look tired. They move slowly. In first period, which begins at 7:30, you rarely even see behavior problems because kids are so tired. Our kids need more sleep. To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
Temecula students awaken to the cause
When Ramsay’s students complained about school’s early start time, she suggested they do something about it. So they founded the Temecula Valley High School Sleep Club. More than 200 students signed up, some thinking it was a place where they could nap. Students made a presentation before the school board, and a survey was sent to parents about later start times.
“My students did all the research, had a proposal written, and then hit a brick wall because of budget cuts,” says Ramsay, Temecula Valley Educators Association. “Changing the schedule became a monetary item.”
The Sleep Club disbanded, and Ramsay thought the issue had been permanently put to rest. However, the district is considering a later start time for the 2013-14 school year based on a poll showing 73 percent of parents favor later start times for high school students, and 63 percent favor it for elementary school students.
“I’m ecstatic,” says Jason Luque, who was president of the Sleep Club and now attends Northern Arizona University. “I’m glad I did something to help open people’s eyes to the fact that not everything has to stay the way it is. There’s no reason for schools to have a schedule based on agrarian society of the 1800s and harvesting crops. Let’s hope everybody goes with logic instead of emotion as the years go on.”
Ramsay is pleased her students’ hard work paid off. She acknowledges the issue made her unpopular with some of her colleagues, who did not want their workday to extend later.
“People are alarmed by change. But we can pilot this program and see if kids get sick less often and perform better. Let’s look at the data, and if it doesn’t support change, we can always go back to how things were.”
Belmont faculty sounds the alarm
Students sleeping in could be a nightmare due to traffic congestion at a busy intersection, say teachers at Carlmont High School in Belmont.
“This is a hot topic because the other schools in our district now start later, and we got a waiver,” says Kelly Redmon, Sequoia District Teachers Association (SDTA). The school was asked for years to make the change, but as of this month the district backed off, and an earlier start time is no longer on the horizon.
SDTA members voiced concerns that parents might drop off students early on their way to work, leaving them unsupervised, and that students involved in extracurricular activities would walk home in the dark. Staff were especially concerned low-income students from East Palo Alto would not benefit from the plan because these students would still wake up early to catch the school bus and return home at dark.
“It’s an equity issue,” says teacher Justin Raisner. “Not all of the population would get the benefit of a later start time, which did raise questions.”
Carlmont teachers questioned whether a later start time would actually give students more sleep.
“I think kids would just stay up later posting on Facebook,” says Carolyn Wade. “I get e-mails from some of my students at 3 in the morning.”
Students were split on the topic.
“I want more sleep so bad,” sighs Sarah Levin. “It’s really hard with after-school clubs, homework and college applications. Sleep falls by the wayside. I know if I got more sleep I’d get more done. I’m exhausted.”
“I’m against a later start time,” says Gabriela D’Souza. “If students need more sleep, they should just go to bed earlier. Instead, they are texting, on Facebook, playing video games and procrastinating homework.”
Palo Alto resets the clock
Gunn High School students gained a half hour of sleep after the start time changed from 7:55 to 8:25 last fall. The high-achieving school made the change to address student “fatigue” and stress. Students can still attend zero period if they choose.
“I think it helped to address the stress issue,” says Kristy Blackburn, Palo Alto Educators Association. “I personally enjoy the later start, and feel more rested in the morning. But I don’t like getting home at 4:30 or 5.”
It’s too early to tell if the school’s already stellar test scores will rise. But Blackburn notices students seem more alert, and she is issuing fewer tardy slips.
Students are enthusiastic about the switch.
“It reduces stress because I just have the psychological satisfaction of getting a half hour more sleep,” says Shireen Ahsan. “When I sleep well, I remember lessons more accurately. I don’t constantly yawn in class, and I don’t get lost during lectures.”
A little sleep goes a long way, muses Shawna Chen.
“I get more small doses of sleep. I think it improves student achievement. With more sleep, students are more focused on what they’re doing and can do more. A later start time is extremely effective in providing more sleep, less anxiety and an overall more positive school experience.”
Agoura Hills students choose arrival times
Marcia Yang trudges across campus for her precalculus class at zero period, beginning at 7 a.m. She awoke at 6 and was thrilled to find a primo spot in the parking lot.
Sophie Fried arrives at 7:45 a.m. for “support period,” where teachers offer extra help with homework before the school day begins. She also finds parking.
Greg Balke rides in on his bicycle as the bell rings for first period at 8:40 a.m.
All three attend Agoura Hills High School, where students and teachers are given the choice of three different arrival times.
“It’s an option most schools don’t offer,” says early bird Yang. “The school accommodates those who want to come to school early as well as those who prefer to sleep later.”
“It’s definitely more relaxed,” says Balke. “I have more time to procrastinate. I stay up really late. My bedtime is between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. depending on what’s due the next day. I will never go to zero period unless it’s mandated. I like having extra time to sleep.”
The school changed to a flexible schedule years ago when research linked more sleep to improved achievement, says Craig Hochhaus, math teacher and co-president of the Los Virgenes Education Association. He estimates that a third of the students show up at 7 a.m.; most arrive at 8:40.
“Test scores have gone up, but who knows why? I still see tired kids. But I can say with conviction that it works really well when kids have a choice about when they start. School can be such a regimented thing. When offered a choice, it improves morale for students and staff.”