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Time for school

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reinforced what parents of teenagers already know: They go to bed late at night, and wake up late the next morning.

And yet, in most districts in North Carolina and across the United States, the morning bell rings at high schools and middle schools before their students are fully alert for learning, and the dismissal bell rings when they remain full of energy, both mental and physical. 

The rhythms of school and of adolescents’ biology do not harmonize.

“In puberty,” says three CDC researchers, drawing on an array of studies, “biological rhythms commonly shift so that adolescents become sleepy later at night and need to sleep later in the morning. These changes are often combined with poor sleep hygiene (including irregular bedtimes and the presence of television, computers, or mobile phones in the bedroom). During the school week, the chief determinant of wake times is school start time. The combination of delayed bedtimes and early school start times results in inadequate sleep for a large portion of the adolescent population.”

The CDC panel approves of an earlier recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that middle and high schools ring their bells no earlier than 8:30 a.m. According to a CDC and U.S. Department of Education national survey – not an exact count – only 17.7 percent of public middle and high schools start at 8:30 or later. In North Carolina, the survey showed, only 15.2 percent open at 8:30 or later.

Federal health authorities say teenagers need at least eight hours of sleep; less sleep contributes to such maladies as depressive symptoms, being overweight, risky behaviors, and poor academic performance. Federal data show that about two thirds of American students in grades 9-12 get less than eight hours sleep.

Despite the weight of evidence, says the CDC report released earlier this month, “groups seeking to delay school start times in their district often face resistance. Common barriers to delaying school start times include concerns about increased transportation costs because of changes in bus schedules; potential for traffic congestion for students and faculty; difficulty in scheduling after-school activities, especially athletic programs; and lack of education in some communities about the importance of sleep  and school start times.”

What the CDC described as resistance has been playing out in Durham County, where a school board committee has recommended starting most high schools at 9 a.m., keeping most middle schools at 7:30, and staggering start times for elementary schools from 7:30 to 9:15. Currently, most high schools open at 7:30 a.m. and dismiss at 2:30 p.m.

As the Durham Board of Education prepared to take up the committee proposal, the Herald-Sun reported, coaches worried that a revised schedule would impinge on after-dismissal practices. Some teachers, said the newspaper report, felt that they would end up working to 5:30 or so on many days, cutting into their family time.

Schools, of course, do not stand apart from the fabric and dynamics of the society around them.

This is an era of two-parent families holding down two or more jobs to sustain a middle-class standard of living, of single-parent families struggling to make ends meet, of Latino and Asian families gaining a foothold in North Carolina. Parents, who fondly remember their own summer breaks from school, want to pass on that experience to their children.

It’s important to consider the effect of shifting school time on faculty and staff, as well as to listen to the community. But, it’s equally, or more, important to elevate factors that bear on student academic performance.

Should school schedules reflect the needs of students, or the desires and preferences of adults?

The question applies to the multiple debates North Carolinians have had in recent years over the timing of schooling – debates over traditional calendar vs. year-round calendar, debates over when summer vacation begins and ends, and debates over the daily bell schedule.

These debates take place in the context of a society that has constructed an ad hoc “industry’’ of after-school and out-of-school enterprises. Tourism sites and small-retail firms have jobs for teenagers, and many of them want the spending money the jobs provide. An array of after-school programs are available, at some expense, for working parents in need of a place for their school-age children to spend the time between their dismissal from school and the end of their parents’ work day. Some families rely on grandparents or neighbors to babysit, or simply trust their adolescents as latch-key kids. The long summer requires parents to scramble to find suitable daily activities for their children, often at commercial or nonprofit enterprises.

But what about positioning school as the central hub for the development of adolescents?

Isn’t it worth considering whether it would be more developmentally productive for teenagers, more efficient for parents, and more sensible and cost-effective for society, for schools to have daily schedules and yearly calendars designed to serve the academic, exercise, and artistic needs and aspirations of students?

Schools may not offer everything for every adolescent. Still, the CDC and the nation’s pediatricians, as well as the lived experience of parents (like me) who have raised children through their teen years, provide evidence sufficient for school authorities in Durham and across North Carolina to apply their creativity to the timing of schooling that enhances educational achievement.

Here is the pediatrics policy statement. 

Here is the link to the CDC report. 

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.