How early is too early for high-schoolers?

Students from South River High School's STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) magnet program board their school bus around 6:15 a.m. at Hillsmere Elementary.
Students from South River High School's STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) magnet program board their school bus around 6:15 a.m. at Hillsmere Elementary. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

It was hard to tell whether his eyes were actually open when Derek Jones shuffled into his dimly lit kitchen at 5:45 a.m., the smell of bacon in the air. The 16-year-old didn't speak, but took directions from his mother who whispered: "I have your coffee made and your breakfast sandwich ready."

Within minutes he had munched on a banana, downed a cup of java, grabbed his egg bagel and backpack and was in the car on his way to the bus stop with his father. By 6:12 a.m. he was boarding the bus, and by 7:17 a.m., whether ready to learn or not, Jones was in his pre-calculus class at South River High School in Anne Arundel County.

Such early classes have always been part of life for high school students, but a group of five Anne Arundel mothers is trying to launch a national movement to push back the start time of high schools, saying the health, safety and educational achievement of their children is at stake.

Gioia Mapp, Jones' mother, says it is inhumane to ask teens to go to school at a time when researchers say their biological clocks tell them they should still be in bed. On Wednesday, the mothers joined parents from Fairfax County, Va., at the Capitol in Washington to begin dropping off a petition with 5,000 signatures from around the country to members of Congress from Maryland and Virginia.

They have also begun contacting state lawmakers to try to spur a movement for change if they fail to get national legislation.

School systems have resisted attempts to make start times later, saying it would be too costly and would interfere with athletic and after-school activities. Many suburban school systems use their buses three times each morning, picking up high school students first, then middle-schoolers and then the youngest pupils. High schools in the Baltimore area begin between 7:17 a.m. and 7:45 a.m., though the city, which does not have buses, has high schools that begin as late as 9 a.m.

"This schedule is just not natural. It stresses me out," said Ella Andersen Madsen, a ninth-grader at Annapolis High School.

Jones said that when he gets out of bed, "I am in this state of half-asleep, half-awake, running on autopilot."

At the bus stop Wednesday, as he stood with seven other students, the sun had not risen. One boy jumped out of a minivan, his mother behind the wheel, still in her pajamas and polka-dot bathrobe.

In his first-period class, Jones said, "more often than not I find myself falling asleep and waking up and not understanding what the teacher is talking about anymore."

Parents and students have long chafed at the early start times, but research in the past decade has supported their criticism. Changes in the circadian rhythms during adolescence mean that teens have difficulty falling asleep before 11 p.m or waking up early. Their deepest sleep is usually at 7 a.m.

In September, the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, published a paper that said making middle and high school start times later would increase student achievement.

"The biological evidence is pretty darn clear," said Jonah Rockoff, a professor at the Columbia Business School who was one of the authors of the Brookings paper. A study of Air Force cadets who were randomly assigned classes, he said, showed that students who were assigned early morning classes not only didn't perform as well in the early classes, but their grades overall were lower than those of students assigned to later classes.

"We still see very large negative effects of having the early start time and not just in the class that starts early but across all classes," said Rockoff, who contends that the cost of changing bus schedules would be worth the gain for students.

"It is like asking an adult to rise at 4 in the morning," said Heather Macintosh, one of the mothers who is leading the Arundel effort and says her daughter's alarm clock goes off at 5:20 a.m. "Our school schedule is just such a bad match for our teenagers' circadian rhythms."

Sleep deprivation, she said, has been linked to depression, weight gain, thoughts of suicide and risky behavior in teens. And high school students who drive to school early in the morning or walk to school in the dark are more apt to have accidents.

Terra Ziporyn Snider, a medical writer and mother of a junior at Severna Park High, said she began working on the issue years ago when her eldest children were in high school. A group of Annapolis and Severna Park parents advocated that the start time be pushed back, but lost on a 4-4 vote by the Anne Arundel school board in 2006.

Snider said the effort was renewed recently when five mothers got together to found Start School Later, using social media such as Facebook and Twitter and collecting signatures for the petition. They have a website: startschoollater.net.

Snider and Macintosh said they have the support of parents from across Maryland and in all 50 states, many who have met resistance at the local level because school systems do not want to change bus schedules. The Maryland school board and state school leaders have never weighed in on start times, which have been seen as a local issue. About 15 years ago, Howard County parents advocated to start school later.

But the mothers say bus schedules should not drive education decisions that are in the best interest of children.

"I think they have a very compelling argument," said Del. Ronald George, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. He said he does not think it is worth pursuing legislation this year, but encouraged the Start School Later group to begin making their case to individual state legislators who he believes could be convinced. "I believe it wholeheartedly," he said.

Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel school system, said the changes would be difficult to make.

"The issue of changing school start times is a complex one with no easy answers," he said. "In a county such as ours where contracted buses make multiple runs and where magnet school buses traverse large areas of our county, moving the start of one school level is problematic and comes with considerable cost."

One solution that has been considered by school systems in discussions over the years is to flip elementary and high school start times. But while younger children naturally wake up earlier than teenagers, parents do not want them standing at bus stops in the dark.

Solon Snider, the Severna Park student, says he sleeps an average of four to five hours a night during the week because he, like Jones, is often at school late for activities and then has homework. He says that even when he tries to go to sleep before 11 p.m., he can't.

"None of us are actually fully awake until 9 a.m.," said Jennifer Schultz, a student at Annapolis High School. "So our brains don't really start retaining much until then."


Baltimore Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.

High school start times

Anne Arundel: 7:17 a.m.

Baltimore City: 7:45 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Baltimore County: 7:30 a.m. to 7:50 a.m.

Carroll County: 7:35 a.m. to 7:45 a.m.

Harford County: 7:30 a.m.

Howard County: 7:25 a.m.