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Sleeping In: Sanity For High Schoolers

Anyone who has ever been a teenager knows well the horror of early awakenings during those heady years. For years, school administrators have known about research that bolsters the argument of teens who sleep till noon, yet most school systems insist that bus schedules and the convenience of parents and staff make it imperative to cling to school hours created when we were a nation of farmers and factory hands.

Now, after many months of rigorous study by a task force of parents, teachers, students and others, the Fairfax County school board is poised today to decide whether to overhaul school starting times and let teenagers sleep an hour or two later each morning. As someone who has never quite gotten past his teenage predilection for sleeping from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m., I can only stand and cheer at the mere possibility of such a reform.

But don't start the celebration quite yet: Despite a call by the Transportation Task Force--the sleep squad--for a wholesale shift in start times that would have high schools open at 8:45 a.m. and go to 3:45 p.m., and let middle schools have an even more civilized and productive day, from 9:20 to 4:30 (that's my ideal school day, both as a parent and a former student), Fairfax administrators are already balking at such change.

In a memo to school board members, chief operating officer Dean Tistadt says the system has three choices:

1. "Thank the task force for its great work but shelve the issue for the time being due to the enormous budget difficulties facing the school system over the next several years."
2. Put the task force's report out to parents and seek a broader public discussion. (In other words, punt.)
3. Accept the recommendation for later start times, direct the staff to put together bus schedules that would accommodate such a change, and then see how the public reacts.

Tistadt ends up recommending some version of the third option, while expressing his skepticism by noting that the county has gone down this road at least a couple of times before, only to pull back from any real change. And he is quick to note that changing bus schedules as the task force envisions--basically sending elementary school kids to school earlier so older kids can sleep later--would be expensive, and added expenses are not in the cards given the current economic state of affairs.

There are school systems that have moved to a more humane schedule with good results. Arlington did it a few years ago and that system's study of the impact of later start times for teenagers impressively confirms that many students are just not capable of paying full attention at the preposterously early time when many local schools open for business.

"Research on the impact of school start times and adolescent behavior guided the decisions about changing the schedules, and this study concludes that the change had its desired impact on the main beneficiaries, high school students," the Arlington study says.

The study found that teachers and students agreed: Kids pay more attention and perform better when school starts at a rational hour. The downside to the change, Arlington found, came at the middle school level, because those kids' start time had to be moved earlier to allow high school kids to come in later--there are only so many buses and bus drivers and when routes have to be run in shifts, someone has to go first.

The Fairfax proposal would put that burden in the most logical place, on elementary school kids, who by and large tend to get up earlier anyway. But opponents of the change argue that little kids ought not run the risk of having to stand outside in the early morning darkness while waiting for a bus. Granted, no one wants little kids standing on street corners in the dark, but especially in winter, there are only so many hours of daylight, and if the wait in the dark isn't in the morning, it's bound to be in the afternoon, when more drivers are drunk, speeding or otherwise endangering kids.

And the Fairfax proposal would only move elementary start times back to 7:50 a.m., when even in December the sun is already blazing into action. The task force approved its call for new, later start times by a vote of 22-5, with 13 abstentions, which goes to show you that some people are early people and some people are late people.

One good sign of consensus: 79 percent of the task force members agreed that the official start of twilight should not be a strict cutoff time by which all students must be picked up and taken home. Isn't that encouraging: A consensus for flexibility. Will wonders never cease?

More smart stuff: The Fairfax proposal wisely puts middle schoolers in the schedule that runs latest in the day. Yes, high school kids probably have the toughest time getting rolling in the morning, so logically they should get the latest start. But task force members were good to recall that middle school kids are the ones who generally get into the most mischief in those hours after school when parents may be at work, unable to supervise their kids. The task force's solution is to keep middle school kids at school as late as possible, assuring that they be occupied during that prime time for getting into all the wrong habits and places.

All that's left now is for the school board to stand up to bus schedulers and give young people the chance to show their best. Let's see how willing the board is to reconsider structures invented for an agrarian society that no longer exists.

By Marc Fisher |  April 14, 2008; 7:27 AM ET
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Comments

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"sending elementary school to kids earlier"

I think the subject and object are reversed there.

Posted by: wiredog | April 14, 2008 8:17 AM

My daughter starts high school at FCPS next year, so this could come just in time. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Thanks for the great article.

Posted by: DWinFC | April 14, 2008 8:26 AM

One of the biggest arguments against this is from the sports teams. As it is with scheduling and field times sports teams (who get out at 2:10) are practicing until 5 or 6 pm at night. It would only be worse under this schedule. The same could be said about after school band, chorus, orchestra and drama as well. As a chemistry teacher, I'm already here until 4 pm every day for after school help for high school students and then I have labs to set up. Extrapolate that with the schedule you've posted here, would mean I'd be here until 6 pm or later every night. I understand the research about students, but there is more at play here in FCPS.

Posted by: amwhite1 | April 14, 2008 8:30 AM

Excuse me I got up slopped the hogs, fed the chickens and with my dogs put the sheep in different pastures and started school at 730am. these kids and their wimp parents need to man up! Stop coddling these losers!

And a journalist talking about academic achievemnt please. they typically have the lowest SAT and GPA in college. Rivaling the football team. With excpetions we aren't talking the best and brightest when we talk about journalist. Come on these folks write and criticize others and never have accomplished anything on their own.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 14, 2008 8:32 AM

By highschool the primary purpose of eduction should be to prepare young people for the adult world. Therefore, classes should run from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm with plenty of homework, emails form teachers at all hours and unexpected demands for lengthy reports on short notice. Oh, an what's with this whimpy neighborhood school thing? Make em commute at least 45 minutes each way.

Seriously, how many adults would tolerate a schedule that requires them to be at work as early as we expect highschool studtents to be in class? Let them sleep.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | April 14, 2008 8:50 AM

Marc,

All of this is so perfectly logical. That is the primary reason that it will never happen on a countywide basis.

Posted by: Joe in SS | April 14, 2008 9:03 AM

My children went to an elementary, middle and high schools that started at 9:30 and ended at 4:10. The schools here in Prince George's County have staggered start times, and some schools start a lot earlier than that. They all played sports, with some practices before school and some after. A later starting school does allow for that option. You can have a practice that starts at 7:30 am, as the swim team does, or as my son's wrestling team does, practice after school until 7, when parents are available to pick their students up at school. I always wondered how the students get home after practice with early starting schools. There are no activity buses here, so they would have to walk, get a ride from a friend, who may or may not be allowed to have passengers, have a parent leave work early, or not participate in after school activities. I see later starting schools as much more humane, for all ages.

Posted by: SParks | April 14, 2008 9:17 AM

Seriously, how many adults would tolerate a schedule that requires them to be at work as early as we expect highschool studtents to be in class? Let them sleep.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | April 14, 2008 8:50 AM

I know lots, everyone from the construction workers; to government workers who start at 6:00 to get off at 2:30; to the teachers at the schools (like the chemistry teacher above who doesn't want it later);

Posted by: Anonymous | April 14, 2008 9:23 AM

I have a long daily commute to and from DC every day. When I leave home at 6:15 am there are high school kids out standing in their driveways for the school bus -- AT 6:15 AM!!!! For half the year, it's dark at that time of morning. I don't know what time school lets out since I don't have kids (THANK YOU, GOD), but I don't get home until after 7:00 pm. They say it's to allow the bus drivers to do two pick-up runs in the morning. Get the high schoolers first, then pick up the elementary kids. Sounds ridiculous to me....Why can't they all have the same schedule?

Posted by: Calvert County, MD | April 14, 2008 9:54 AM

Yes, yes, yes. I have two children in elementary. One is up by 6:30, wakes me on the weekends, etc. The other one I have to drag out of bed in the mornings. If she is this hard to wake up as a nine year old who goes to bed by 8pm, I am dreading how hard it would be to get her up for high school. AND it is not just middle schoolers who get into mischief. I like the later start times for HS students precisely because what most of them would be doing is sleeping in the am, but in the pm, anything could be happening.

But I don't see it as at all likely. Cost could be prohibitive. And what an outcry!

But, high school chemistry teacher--do your prep in the morning instead of after school.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 14, 2008 9:54 AM

It is ludicrous how early the HS kids have to be at the bus. 6:15 - 6:45 is when almost all HS students get the bus. But starting every school at the same time is not the answer. Having each bus driver make two bus runs means half the drivers and half the buses. This is a husge cost savings.
In many areas of Calvert the Middle Schools and Elementary schools that are physically close together start at the same time and are bussed together, again saving time and money. There are staggered start times in the middle and elementary schools to minimize the number of buses that need to be purchased and maintained.

Posted by: Also Calvert County | April 14, 2008 10:12 AM

Not being sarcastic but would an end time of 4:30 mean that buses would be in rush hour traffic? I am not completely familiar with all of Fairfax County but the area I do know are very congested and 4:30 may increase the time the kids are on the bus tremendously. And may further contribute to traffic woes in the area.

Posted by: 4:30? | April 14, 2008 10:15 AM


One time while in Houston, TX, I had an appointment in San Antonio. So I left Houston between 6-630AM to drive to San antonio. As I was leaving my in-laws subdivision, I thought that people standing on the corners in the shadows were drug dealers. It did not make sense for anybody to be loitering in the pitch black cold morning. I drove off thinking "wow my in-laws neighborhood has changed." then when I got to the main road I saw school buses "WITH KIDS ALREADY ON THEM" turning into the various neighborhoods along the road. I could not believe it. Sending a typical kid to school that early seemed ungodly. Now I had to catch the bus by 7:30 here in DC to be in school by 9am. But it was a metro bus going acoss town, not a dedicated school bus going to the neighborhood school. The 90-minute bus-train-bus ride across town allowed me to wake up. but i still was not good until after lunch, which was thankfully 11:15 or 11:45 at the latest. thankfully religion tended to be my early morning classes.

Posted by: robgreg | April 14, 2008 10:17 AM

Marc finally gets something right. I ought to say something nice about him.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | April 14, 2008 10:23 AM

"Come on these folks write and criticize others and never have accomplished anything on their own."

Don't have to be a plumber to know when the water is off.

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | April 14, 2008 10:25 AM

I agree that the start times for middle/high school kids is insane-but I am not liking sending the elementary kids earlier. Too many latchkey kids already-child care is unaffordable for many parents. If kids are getting home at 3pm now-will they be getting home at 2pm? I am more concerned about a 9 or 10 year old left home alone than a 13 year old.

Posted by: FCPS Parent | April 14, 2008 10:28 AM

Hey, I was one of the kids in Houston. I thought everyone went to school that early. I think part of the issue was that the bus dropped us off about 20-30 mins before school started. And freshman year we practiced football in the morning before school started, so even earlier. But I still thought I had it better than the kids on the swim team and diving team. The last thing I would want to do is get up at 5 AM and jump in a pool of water.

Posted by: Cliff | April 14, 2008 10:48 AM

Sleep deprivation is torture. Someday we'll look back and see that what we have been doing to our teens was child abuse.
They aren't physically capable of falling asleep before 11 pm and need 9 hours of sleep. To make up for the lack they sleep at school. Ask any of their teachers.
These children have so many stressors today, and must grow up to clean up a global mess. They're not at all prepared for that.

Posted by: ellen | April 14, 2008 11:13 AM

they sleep at school, absolutely, even the good students. and they get sick too much, because they don't get enough sleep, so they can't fight off the germs that come their way.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 14, 2008 11:34 AM

I am only 40, but I have to agree with a small portion of the respondents. I was up everyday by 6 to get to school by 8, left sports practices around 6PM, went to sleep at around 11:30 each night after homework.

What's the big deal?

Posted by: Hmm | April 14, 2008 11:43 AM

Marc you forgot one issue which will nix this whole idea FCPS has early closing every Monday for the elementary school students. Allegedly this allows the lazy good for nothing overpaid union teachers time to plan. FCPS needs to move to year around schools.

I dont need the kids for the farm I can hire you and Tony Kornheiser to do farm chores after you both accept the WP's buyout offer.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 14, 2008 12:13 PM

To Hmm: The big deal is that a lot of parents are like Marc's. Notice his article? "As someone who has never quite gotten past his teenage predilection for sleeping from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m". I was a teenager and never had this predilection.

Maybe it was because my parents had their kids in bed, lights out, by 11. And we didn't have the computer or TV running in our room either.

Put the kids to bed at a decent time and they get a decent amount of sleep. As far as us parents go - very few of us have the luxury of the bankers hours that Marc seems to think we have. Try having the alarm go off at 5:30 AM Marc. Spend the day working and RAISING your children and you don't get to bed until 11:30 PM.

That's more like the real world. The sooner the teens get used to it the better off they will be. TANSTAAFL

Posted by: SoMD | April 14, 2008 12:20 PM

When my daughter enters high school in 2009 in MoCo, she will have to be at the bus stop at 5:55 and for a 7:25 start time. Do I need to spell out how stupid this is?

Posted by: mki522 | April 14, 2008 1:05 PM

Maybe the hours aren't the problem. Maybe the kids' schedules are packed full with soccer practice (does anybody actually play a game or is it all practice?), football, cheerleading practice, band, drama, after school activities, swim meets, and God knows what else. That hardly leaves any time for actual study and homework. Add the computer games and latenight TV shows they absolutely have to watch and it's no wonder they're all ADD and/or exhausted.

Posted by: Calvert County, MD | April 14, 2008 1:21 PM

I was at my alma mater, Richard Montgomery, last month for an open house of the new school building (state of the art). I glanced on the wall of one of the classrooms, saw the schedule and discovered the first period starts at 7:25, a full three-quarters of an hour earlier then when I started classes in the early '70s. In other words, in December and January, classes begin before sunrise.

Posted by: Vincent | April 14, 2008 7:38 PM

Methinks high schoolers aren't the only ones who might need a little more sleep: a 22-15 vote with 13 abstentions (as described here) means that there are 40 task force members; 79% of task force members agreeing about something (as also described here) would mean that 31.6 of those 40 were in agreement.

Posted by: Sweth | April 15, 2008 10:02 AM

Apparently, I could also do w/ a little more sleep--clearly that should be 22-5, not 22-15...

Posted by: Sweth | April 15, 2008 10:04 AM

I'm a high school administrator in FCPS. I truly hope that later start times are approved. I am all for this, with a caveat: why don't the kids in extracurricular activities practice BEFORE school starts? I have to be at school early anyways, so I'd gladly supervise these kids.

Posted by: FCPS Administrator | April 15, 2008 10:10 AM

Dean Tisdadt is not an elected offical so I don't understand why he continues to be the tail wagging the dog on this isssue. The public has been weighing in on this issue for YEARS and now through this task force has made recommendations to the School Board. It is high time the School Board listen and ACT - that is what they were elected to do - rather than let Dean Tisdadt continue to dictate policy by scewing the facts, defining the debate and throwing up more raod blocks to the people's will.

Posted by: EJS | April 15, 2008 1:26 PM

If Arlington and Loudon Counties can manage later start times for high schools, so can Fairfax.

This change may require a year or two of planning; but it should be a no-brainer for the long-run.

Finally, the Task Force was a school board-appointed body. (Mr. Fisher's hypertext links might suggest it was a creature of the SLEEP organization, which has fought for later start times for years.)

Posted by: Task Force member and FCPS parent | April 15, 2008 2:18 PM

So what was decided yesterday? I don't see any reporting on the results of yesterday's School Board meeting on the Post's website.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 15, 2008 2:26 PM

I hope Mr. Fisher reviews the minority report of the committee and someone's journalistic skills will be brought to bear on the proceedings, procedures and why there were 13 abstentions. It might be interesting to see if the outcome was determined a priori by committee composition. While there are no easy answers, high school extracurricular activities and parental expectations as well as budget are factors. My daughter went to a late-opening school and the time was shifted, but she was still up too late too often with homework after sports, play practices, etc (Admittedly, the next advocacy group could work to solve this by opposing homework). While not opposing a trial of late start times, I submit teenage "rhythms" are not inevitable but cultural (students working after school? Before electricity, were teenagers staying up late huddled around a gas lamp playing whist because they couldn't sleep?). Teens are influenced by parents' expectations (or lack therof), to coin an unpopular phrase for teens and some parents. They do need sleep, but won't go to sleep early enough when they are not expected to and/or the computer/TV is available. Public school systems in our democracy are led by elected officials for whom it is often difficult to ask the right questions before submitting to the mercy of politics, single issue advocacy groups and media pronouncements which fail to do so. We shall see if for our teens, the world will examine and adjust to "their needs" as easily. I am not optimistic and would rather have mine learn to adjust before they get there so they can learn a life lesson more important than the grades. They have done well so far with the agony of early schooling and I think they can continue to do it.

Posted by: FCPS parent/counselor | April 15, 2008 4:43 PM

We all know that the children need to wake up later in the morning since many of them tend to be out late at night wondering the neighborhoods.

Posted by: FredCoMD | April 15, 2008 9:02 PM

To Hmm,

"I am only 40, but I have to agree with a small portion of the respondents. I was up everyday by 6 to get to school by 8, left sports practices around 6PM, went to sleep at around 11:30 each night after homework.
What's the big deal?"

These kids are on the bus by 6, not waking up. Also, school starts a 7:20, not 8. And on some nights, kids have too much homework to go to bed by 11:30. I know kids who would consider it a blessing to get to sleep by 11:30.

Posted by: TC | April 15, 2008 10:01 PM

We have a shortage of bus drivers. Maybe we could recruit more if they didn't have to be on the road at 5am, and awake at 3am. Now those are some difficult hours to work.

Posted by: jmc | April 16, 2008 1:39 AM

There were 67 voting members of the task force. The group was heavily composed of FCPS employees. Yet most of the non voting and non attending members were FCPS employees. It makes me wonder if they have been through this so many times and seen it killed that it was not worth their time to participate. They've seen the negative "staff reports" too may times before. The teacher unions and Fairfax County PTA's are in favor later start times for High Schoolers. Why isn't Dean?

Posted by: Just a Mom | April 16, 2008 1:50 AM

The high school students I see are mostly bored and uninspired by school. Who cares what time they start? The School Board should be focused on getting them excited, involved, and caring about something. A change in start times is not going to influence their passion if what goes on in school does not change.

Posted by: Cares About Kids | April 17, 2008 7:40 PM

For the comments about sports schedules -- a later start time will not affect this. After-school activities run from 3:30 to 5:30 right now even though high school classes end at 2:05.

For those worried about the younger kids waiting in the dark - it's not dark at 7:30 a.m. and ES kids have parents who wait with them or take them to before-school daycare. Late start times for high school, however, will prevent our teens from waiting for buses alone in the dark at 6:15 a.m.

Get the facts right! Late start times will harm no one and will greatly benefit the health, wellbeing, and academic achievement of our teenagers! I know this first hand: We moved from a VA school district where middle and high school starts at 8:40 to Fairfax and my son's GPA dropped .4 points. He's a senior now and has had health and attendance issues since day one -- I blame it all on the early start time.

FCPS needs to think of the students not the bottom line. Parents in Fairfax have been asking for this for over a decade now. It's time for our administrators to listen and to do the right thing.

Posted by: Pat in Oak Hill | April 18, 2008 2:11 PM

Fairfax County high schoolers are penalized twice by the FCPS - once by the pretension that learning takes place at 7:20 a.m. and again by a grading scale that is out of line with the rest of the country and puts our kids at a disadvantage for college admission and scholarships. FCPS - don't be so arrogant about the quality of our schools that you continue to lag behind in these changes. Parents - wakeup to these issues before your child is in high school. It is too late for my graduating senior but at least college classes start at a reasonable hour!!

Posted by: Wake Up FCPS | April 18, 2008 2:15 PM

i think its a perfect solution because i see a lot of tired teenagers every day so it would defenately help them!

Great article!!

Posted by: HI!! | May 12, 2008 5:43 PM

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