This fall, students at 11 schools in Baltimore County will start their days five to 15 minutes earlier than last year, thanks to changes approved by the Baltimore County School Board in June. The area parents, physicians, business leaders and teachers working together as Start School Later-Baltimore County believe this is a change in the wrong direction.
High schools in Baltimore County begin as early at 7:10, meaning thousands of our students are on the bus in the 6 a.m. hour. These hours are incompatible with known sleep patterns of teenagers, most of whom need about 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night. Shifts in adolescents' physiology limit most adolescents' ability to fall asleep much before 11 p.m., regardless of homework and extracurricular demands or electronic distractions.
Just as it's hard to learn when you are hungry, it's hard to learn when you have algebra an hour before your biological clock is set to "wake." It's also hard to grow and be healthy.
Sleep deprivation impairs attention, memory and judgment. It also leads to mood swings, obesity, substance abuse, immune disorders, depression, suicide, risky behaviors and car accidents. When schools delay bell times, measures of mental health improve; truancy, tardiness and drop-out rates decrease, and teens actually get more sleep per night. Not surprisingly, rates of car crashes also decrease.
"Chronic sleep loss in children and adolescents is one of the most common — and easily fixable — public health issues in the U.S. today," said pediatrician Judith Owens, lead author of the policy statement, "School Start Times for Adolescents," published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics.
Clearly a health and safety issue, sleep deprivation is also linked to academic problems. In 2011, the Brookings Institution issued a report stating that moving school start times later especially helps children from disadvantaged backgrounds and is associated with significant increases in test scores, particularly among this group. Among all students, test score gains following schedule changes were equivalent to those achieved by decreasing class sizes by one-third; disadvantaged students benefited the most.
The Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota published in 2014 a multi-site study in eight public high schools over three states with 9,000 students. Delaying start times by just an hour, from 7:35 a.m. to 8:35 a.m., resulted in higher grades and scores on achievement tests, improved attendance and reduced tardiness rates and showed a 70 percent reduction in the number of car crashes for teen drivers.
In a Baltimore Sun article on July 13, Baltimore County Public Schools spokesman Mychael Dickerson said that children's best interest are the district's "top priority," balanced with efficient bus routes and start times ("Baltimore County opening some high schools earlier despite push for later start times"). We at Start School Later-Baltimore County believe the county schools are doing the opposite, working for efficiency at the expense of student health. Decisions to start middle and high schools at hours well before students' bodies are ready to function and learn is working against students' biology — risking student health and community safety and making business decisions at the expense of our children. Area districts, including Montgomery County and Anne Arundel County in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia have committed to later start times for their students. It's time for Baltimore County Schools to do the same.
Start School Later-Baltimore County's petition requests that the Baltimore County School Board recognize the large and compelling body of research demonstrating how early school start times negatively impact children's academic achievement and physical and mental health. We ask them to shift and schedule transportation and start times so that all schools in Baltimore County begin after 8:30 a.m., following the recommendations of parents, our county's students, and our children's physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Change is hard, but hundreds of schools around the country have found ways to ensure safe, healthy school hours by prioritizing health and learning. Let's make our community one of them.
Andra Williams Broadwater, Catonsville