Mass. High School May Change Start Time So Teens Can Sleep

Teenagers in Weston may be able to score a little extra shut-eye each morning starting in the 2013-2014 school year, depending on the findings of a local committee set up to study changing the high school’s start time.

“Teenagers need a lot, a lot of sleep,” said Weston schools Superintendent Cheryl Maloney, a member of the committee looking into changing the start time. “They’re exhausted, and they’re growing. Their body needs that rest in order to support this phenomenal physical, emotional, intellectual growth that’s happening.”

The school day at Weston High School runs from 7:30 a.m. to 2:50 p.m., making it one of the longer school days in the state, Maloney said. The schedule was adopted in order to allow for students to have some free periods during the day, and Maloney said some of those free periods might have to be dropped if the school starts later.

“The idea of kids having frees during the day to socialize or do some of their work had a high priority,” Maloney said. “It may be that the priorities have shifted, and it’s far more appealing to kids and parents that they be able to sleep, rather than have some social time or free time during their day.”

“We already end pretty late,” Maloney added. “Right now we are usually on the late side to all of our athletic and nonathletic competitions. So I don’t know how we could go much later.”

In Massachusetts, districts such as Duxbury and Sharon have pushed back start times for their high schools in recent years.

Erica Cole, a high school assistant principal and a member of the start-time committee, said the inquiry is grounded in an increasing body of research on the sleep needs of teens that debunks the stereotype of the lazy teenager.

“It’s not something that can be fixed by saying, well, they should be going to bed earlier,” Cole said, adding that research shows students’ bodies and minds do not allow them to “power down” until a certain time.

Cole is working toward a PhD at Simmons College and is writing her dissertation on the adolescent brain and sleep.

“I’m 32 years old, and I have a hard enough time getting up to be here at 7:30, and I’ve always been a morning person,” she said.

Doreen Shytle, whose children attend Weston High School, said they need to wake up at 6 to catch their 6:50 a.m. bus.

“They’re doing their homework until pretty late,” Shytle said. “It definitely is tiring, for sure.”

The start-time committee includes administrators, parents, students, and teachers. The committee had its first meeting in June and meetings will continue throughout the school year, Cole said.

Mary Carskadon, a professor at Brown University who has extensively researched teenagers’ sleep habits and needs, said pushing back school start times helps improve academic performance and also leads to happier teens.

“There’s kind of a buoyancy that is achieved by making this change, because teachers end up getting more sleep, too,” Carskadon said.

Studies have even shown fewer automobile accidents when teens have more time to get to school, Carskadon said. “That’s life and limb.”

Cole said that, when she was a teacher, students in the early-morning classes were “sort of lumps on a log.” Even pushing the start time back by 30 minutes can make a “huge difference” in how students are able to retain information, Cole said.

“This is about really helping students learn at a time when they’re able to learn,” she said.

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