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Teens' schedules leave little sleep time


Sara Burns sets her alarm for 5:38 a.m. each weekday, but that's not when she's getting out of bed. First she hits the snooze button, giving her seven precious minutes of extra sleep - until her father barges in to shake her awake.

"I hate waking up in the morning," says the 16-year-old senior at Catonsville High School, sipping a caffeinated soda as she waits for classes to begin. "When you wake up late all summer, it's really hard get up early for school."

A few weeks into the start of another school year, a kind of post-summer jet lag has settled over classrooms across Maryland and the nation.

Early wake-ups for school. Afternoon sports practices. Extracurricular activities. Jobs. Homework.

"You go to bed at midnight and wake up at 6 a.m., and all you can do is get used to it," says Catonsville senior Annie Davis, 17. "You try to save the caffeine for when you really need it."

It's a combination that can exhaust even the most energetic teen-agers.

"It's a pretty tough adjustment," says 14-year-old Nick Ness, who began his freshman year at Wilde Lake High School, where classes start at 7:30 a.m. "About the only day you can catch up is Sundays, when I sleep until around noon. That feels real good."

The regular state of sleepiness comes despite a flurry of recent research showing that adolescents need as much sleep as they got when they were younger - if not more.

A report scheduled for release within the next few weeks by the National Sleep Foundation says that teen-agers function best when they're getting 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours of sleep each night.

"Without regular sleeping patterns, it becomes more and more difficult for teens to do their best," says Pat Britz, program director for the foundation. "But with most kids' schedules, they just don't have the time."

Even more significant, as children enter their teen years, their preferred sleep patterns shift, according to the report, indicating that teen-agers are more naturally prone to later times to go to sleep and wake up.

Countering clocks

Yet most high schools run counter to teen-agers' biological clocks - usually starting classes well before 8 a.m., sometimes as early as 7:15 a.m.

"At the end of the first week of school, my daughter woke up that Friday morning and said to me, 'I'm so tired, I can't do this for another 176 days of school,'" says Mona M. Signer, a school board member in Montgomery County. "We all know that teen-agers would do better if they could sleep a little later, but we're not doing anything about it."

Signer's concerns helped spark several studies in Montgomery of adjusting high school starting times, but each option either cost too much or was too complicated.

Two years ago, the Montgomery board agreed to let high schools experiment with two schedules, letting some students attend from 7:25 a.m. to 2:10 p.m., and others from 9:15 a.m. until 4 p.m. Yet by the following fall, no Montgomery high school had agreed to try it.

Nationally, only Minnesota has attempted a shift in school starting times.

The 50,000-student Minneapolis school district - as well as a couple of smaller districts in Minnesota - have pushed the high school opening bell back more than an hour, to about 8:40 a.m.

Researchers tracking the performance of those students have preliminary results showing improved grades, less tardiness and absenteeism, and more satisfaction among parents and students - results that do not surprise high school educators.

"This is a cultural issue, kind of like year-round schooling," says Sharon Norman, director of business, community and parent relations in Baltimore County.

"Intellectually, we know that starting high schools later would be better for achievement, just like we know achievement would be improved if children went to school year-round. But the culture is deeply ingrained to have high schools start early."

A couple of years ago, the Baltimore County schools superintendent put Norman in charge of gathering opinions from parents and the business community about the possibility of starting high schools later.

"There wasn't much agreement on what to do, so the issue was basically dropped," Norman says.

Complex and costly

Changing high school starting times would be complicated and expensive. Most school systems stagger starting times of elementary, middle and high schools, using the same buses to deliver students to three, four or five schools.

Baltimore school officials say they saved more than $4 million when they switched to staggered starting times, and three years ago, Howard County school officials estimated the system would need an extra $2.8 million per year for transportation if they started middle schools and high schools at about the same time.

"It would be more than the cost," says Glenn Johnson, Howard's transportation supervisor. "I don't have any idea where we'd find enough bus drivers to do it. We're sometimes short right now."

Another alternative is to simply swap the starting times of elementary schools and high schools - sending younger children who are more alert in the early morning to class about 7:45 a.m. and letting teen-agers sleep later.

Yet such a change could require children as young as 5 years old to wait at bus stops in the dark. Many families rely on their high school-age children to watch younger siblings after school, and small businesses and restaurants rely on teen-age employees during the late afternoon and early evening hours.

"With everything we have to do after school, I wouldn't want to get home so late every day," says 17-year-old Laura Rothschild, a Wilde Lake senior and field hockey player.

Rothschild - who also works on Wilde Lake's yearbook and has a part-time job at a Columbia Italian restaurant - finds herself too tired to finish her homework some evenings. So she sets her alarm for 5 a.m. "There's never time to catch up on all of the sleep that you miss," Rothschild says.

Consider the early morning scene at Catonsville High School's front lobby. Some students sprawl in the hallways, hoping for a few more minutes of rest. Others chug down sodas and coffee, awaiting the burst of caffeine to take them through physics or calculus.

"School would be better if it started later, like around 8:30 or 9," says 16-year-old Emilie Pless, a junior who stretches out to rest her head on her book bag. "I'm really groggy in the morning. I sometimes feel like I'm kind of out of it."

By now, most high school students have figured out how to be alert for their morning classes. "It's that afternoon class where they start to get tired. That's where the lack of sleep shows up," says Jack Kirtland, a social studies teacher at Catonsville High School.

But many teachers and principals don't have such an easy time with the early starts, either.

"I'm not a morning person, so I'd love it if school would start even a half hour later," says Roger Plunkett, Wilde Lake's principal. "It's hard for me to get up, too."

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