Thompson: Early school start times lead to lagging performance

Try this experiment - set your alarm clock for 3 a.m. Get up, dress, travel, and report ready for work at top performance level at 5 a.m. Does this sound inviting? Will I see your best personality on display?

While this request may seem a bit unusual, it represents the equivalent of what we demand from our teenagers who operate under early-school start times. Their typical day begins at 4:30 a.m.- 5 a.m. with travel by bus at 6 a.m. First bell sounds shortly after 7 a.m. Lunch follows at 10:30 a.m. with school dismissal shortly after 2 p.m. Sound familiar? It amounts to a recipe for disaster on several fronts, yet we sit silently in the grandstand and watch our educational leaders conduct business as usual without challenge in terms of whose interests are really being served?

Research into the science and physiology of adolescence has been active in this arena since the 1990s. The top name in the field is Dr. Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. Her studies determined the nature of circadian biology in relation to the brain and a phase shift with the onset of puberty to later bed times and later rising times.

What this simply means is that adolescents are unable to fall asleep during early evening hours and must sleep later into the morning to accrue the necessary nine hours of sleep recommended for general well-being. Representatives from various medical fields began advising school leaders to eliminate early school start times for teenagers in 1994. A 2005 study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, concluded that school schedules are forcing students to lose sleep and perform academically when they are at their worst.

Sleep deprivation has an impact on both mental and physical health as well as their education. The positive effects of later school start times involve improvement in attendance and truancy rates, higher academic performance, greater motivation to learn, less depression, fewer physical health problems and significantly fewer automobile accidents. The negative list is much longer. Personalities show mood swings, irritability, depression, substance abuse, obesity, suicidal tendencies and accident prone drowsy driving. During school, there is attempted sleep during class time, low academic performance and behavior problems. After school activities remain unsupervised and often involve high-risk behavior patterns.

Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom conducted a major study (1995-2002) involving 17 Minneapolis area school districts after implementing a later start time. She found improvements in attendance and in their emotional and behavioral well-being. Both Minneapolis schools made changes at no cost. Others making the time change include Marion County in Ocala, Fla. and St. John's County in Jacksonville, Fla. In Texas, school systems in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio all found ways to begin classes around 9 a.m. In Georgia, Cobb County and Fulton County have start times at 8:30 a.m. On the international front Monkseaton High School (U.K.) moved to a 10 a.m. start time as did Eastern Commerce High School in Toronto, Canada. Change of this magnitude and complexity appears possible when there is political will.

At the local level, The Howard School recently made the change from 7:15 a.m. to 9 a.m. Dr. Paul Smith, public safety coordinator for the city of Chattanooga, served as principal during this period of transition. He says, "the later start time, 9 a.m., was better overall but minimally. I prefer it to the earlier start time because the student's alertness at the beginning of the school day was much better than at the 7:15 [a.m.]start time."

Admittedly, a later school start time is not a magic pill. However, it is a piece of the puzzle that offers more academic promise than current design.

So where do we go from here? Almost 20 years have passed and we continue to allow this dynamic to operate without public discourse, experimentation, or creative solution. Do we accept present practice and compromise as our best effort or do we tap local talent and intellectual horsepower to meet the challenge? We need to talk!

Dr. Roger Thompson is an Associate Professor in the Criminal Justice Department at UTC. He can be contacted at