Cook: No child left asleep

Cook: No child left asleep

March 15th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Despite libraries of evidence documenting reason upon reason why her body and mind should remain asleep for at least another three hours, Henley Schimpf, 17, still wakes up each morning at a terrible, horrible, no-good time.

Just to get to school.

"Around 5," the high school senior said. "I used to get up around 4:30."

It's the height of irony: The one place designed to help kids do their best wakes them up as if they're on the graveyard shift.

"Coffee really helps," she said.

Know what would help even more?

Move all school start times to 8:30, at the earliest.

Each morning, all across the county, thousands of kids -- age 5 to 18 -- stumble out of bed way before the sun rises, joining nocturnal animals as the only witnesses to a pre-dawn day. Most middle and high schools start at 7:15.

"I may be awake, but I'm not totally functioning," Henley confessed.

Of course she's not. No child or teen is. Their bodies -- needing at least nine hours of sleep, research says -- are biologically structured to run on a totally different time schedule than how we've set up our schools.

"Waking a teenager at 7 a.m. is similar to waking an adult at 4 a.m.," one national study (The Hamilton Project, 2011) states.

You've seen the signs: kids shotgunning energy drinks. Little kids huddling in the dark waiting for the bus. Yawns. Failed tests. Lower scores in morning classes.

Yet within this problem, there is such promise: If we move school start times to later in the morning, so many good things can happen.

Higher scores. More student engagement. Happier teachers (whose performance is measured by scores from tests taken by well-rested kids).

Healthier kids. Better attendance. Less depression and obesity (associated with sleep deprivation).

"Significant improvements in student demeanor and a reduction in disciplinary problems," one journal (Educational Researcher, 2011) reads.

For most Hamilton County middle and high schoolers, the school day ends by 2:20, which leads to this wicked window of afternoon trouble time.

"Break-ins, vandalism, theft," listed Dr. Roger Thompson.

He's not done.

"High risk behaviors. Sexual encounters," he continued.

More?

"Parties. Substance abuse. A lack of supervision," he said.

Like Woodstock, every afternoon in a neighborhood near you. Thompson, a decorated and big-hearted criminal justice professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, first discovered the promise of later start times when charged by Mayor Ron Littlefield in 2008 to study ways to reduce urban crime.

"Kids' risk of becoming victims triples when school lets out," he reported to the mayor.

Since then, Thompson has gotten letters of support from some of the most powerful institutions in the area: UTC, Front Porch Alliance, the city, the Maclellan Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, the Law Enforcement Innovation Center.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"If we're going to be part of a global community, I'd like to be sure Johnny is awake," Thompson said.

We need a communitywide conversation about this issue. All across the country, school districts are contemplating similar changes, but nothing can happen here without the leadership of the Hamilton County school board (its next meeting is Thursday).

Sure, there are athletic, after-school schedules to think about.

But our schools' primary objective is not athletics.

Yes, it would take some work to rearrange bus schedules.

But our schools are not built to cater to bus contracts. (Thompson said he's talking with CARTA about ideas.)

Our schools are built to provide the best and safest places for our children to learn.

Right?

One week ago today, on his way to school, one local student swerved across two lanes of traffic, crashing into the opposite-side guardrail. It was 6:20 in the morning.

The police report explained what happened.

"Apparently fatigued," it read. "Driver ... fell asleep."