Sleepy teens

Any parent of a teenager in high school probably already knows how hard it is to get their child out of bed in the morning for that 7:35 a.m. Algebra II class. Their teachers know it too: At that hour kids are slumped over their desks, sleepy, grumpy and apparently incapable of paying attention to much of anything, let alone to the mysteries of logarithmic functions.

Kids who are asleep in class obviously won't learn much, but the truth is that it's not necessarily their fault that they can't stay awake. Researchers have long known that adolescents have a tendency to go to bed later and get up later in the morning as they enter their teenage years. They also generally need at least two to three hours more sleep a night than adults in order to be at their best. As a result, a lot of high school teens end up chronically sleep-deprived, which is compounded by the fact that they often start classes up to an hour earlier than students in middle and elementary school.

That's why Montgomery County School Superintendent Joshua P. Starr proposed this week to push back the start time at the county's high schools by nearly an hour, from 7:25 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. Mr. Starr says the later start time will allow bleary-eyed teens to get more sleep the night before, which he hopes will translate into higher attendance rates, improved performance in class and better overall health and well-being. The changes he is contemplating are outlined in a 56-page report that will be submitted to the school board next week.

Montgomery County is one of several school systems in the region — including Anne Arundel County and Fairfax County, Va. — that are looking into later high school start times in order to better meet students' needs. As one of the best-performing school systems in the state, it's also an ideal laboratory for testing whether changing high school start times really makes a difference for student outcomes in terms of test scores and other measures of college readiness.

There are potential drawbacks. In districts where most students travel to school by bus, for example, ringing the bell later in high schools could upset the schedules for middle and elementary school students, who probably would have to leave home earlier than they do now if they share the same buses. No parent wants their elementary school children standing at the bus stop before the sun is up so high school students can get to class later. But providing more buses so all grades can travel at the same time could cost school districts millions of additional transportation dollars a year.

Not surprisingly one of the biggest objections to later start times — especially among parents of student athletes — is their potential effect on after-school activities, including high school sports programs. Since practice times would have to be pushed back to maintain the length of the academic day, some fear the change could lead to varsity football, soccer and other outdoor athletic teams practicing after dark, increasing the risk of injuries. Or it could mean that student athletes would end up having to leave school earlier during the day and miss academic work.

Obviously there are trade-offs that would have to be made involving cost, safety and conflicting schedules caused by allowing high school teens to start school later. But supporters of the idea argue the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Several studies conducted around the country have suggested that later high school start times improved attendance, decreased tardiness and left kids more alert and better prepared to learn. This is an issue Maryland should be seriously exploring as a force multiplier in its school reform effort, and we hope other districts will watch Montgomery County's experiment closely to decide whether they should follow its lead.

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