Why Is Going to School Early Still a Thing?

Won't somebody think of the teens?

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Feb 26 2016, 11:00am

Image: Pink Sherbert Photography/Flickr

It's the early 2000s and I'm feeling like garbage. It's 11 PM. SAT prep book in one hand, Adderall in the other, I'm about to dive into the worst few nights of my life.

Or maybe it was 1995. Or 2012. Point is, the times have not changed. Literally. And former high school students may count those few bleary-eyed years as the most sleepless ones in their lives outside of college.

Despite recent waves of research concluding the obvious—teens are often sleep deprived and perform much better when not—why do most school districts in the US insist on bussing all their students to class at the crack of dawn?

Many American students still crawl into bed past midnight only to get up a few hours later to head to classes. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, the average start time for a high school is 7:59 AM, which means students need to mold their sleep schedules to a bedtime as early as 10 PM to get their recommended 8 hours.

And while these hours might be fine for younger students and a subset of working adults who get to bed earlier, there's a body of research that shows that sleep cycles actually shift out much later once you're an adolescent, meaning they'd largely benefit from a later start. Given this fact, asking everyone to get up early and at the same time makes no sense.

And later school start times have already been tested and proven successful in the past. In 1996, researchers at the University of Minnesota convinced the entire school district of Edina, Minnesota to push its daily start times from 7:20 AM to 8:30 AM. They found that the benefits significantly outweighed the costs: 92 percent of parents said their teens were easier to deal with; the percentage of students sleeping eight hours or more each night increased from 34 percent to 43 percent; fewer teens reported smoking and drinking alcohol; and grades even improved. Following these studies, the Minneapolis school district also pushed its start times from 7:15 AM to 8:40 AM the very next year.

So if the science has been around since the mid-90s (more detailed reports finding much of the same benefits abound), why have we gone 20 years without changing anything?

Turns out transportation is a big chunk of it. For school districts in the suburbs and rural areas, changing established bus schedules could require more buses and redrawn routes, which would mean a bump in transportation costs.

"If people aren't aware that it's biology, they assume teens are lazy."

That's what happened in Fairfax County's school district in Virginia, which debated its start times for over five years, but finally pushed them forward for the 2015-16 school year—and has made some positive efforts to get its later start times working seamlessly.

"The cost always seemed to be the obstacle, but it may have been overinflated. When the true costs associated with it were calculated it turned out it was a relatively minor investment—roughly $5 million to purchase additional buses," said John Torre, Fairfax Schools' public information officer.

Torre told me the majority of the feedback they've received has been positive.

"For some reason we think that rescheduling bus runs is some major feat," Stacy Simera, spokesperson for the Start School Later coalition, told me. "Bus schedules should not trump health, learning, and safety."

The coalition tracks school districts in the US and efforts toward pushing start times. They've been tracking progress among school districts like Fairfax on their later school times.

"[Rescheduling and buying buses] didn't turn out to be as much of an issue that some were fearful it might be," Torre said.

The other thing that's hobbling the movement to push back start times is that people generally may be unaware of the science of sleep, Simera said.

"If people aren't aware that it's biology that keeps teenagers and young adults awake till 11 or midnight, they assume they're too lazy," Simera told me.

That creates a whole empathy gap for adults, whose bodies and priorities are wired differently for sleep. Unfortunately for tired teens, it's the adults making the decisions.

There are numerous other barriers, too: athletics are scheduled around dismissal times, and public services, like libraries, might not be able to follow up with an hour shift in school times to give students adequate time for homework and research. Shifting only high schoolers to later start times could also mean that younger students will be less attended waiting for buses in the early morning and could spend more time unsupervised when they get back home.

But if recent steps forward have been of any indication, many school districts in the US are well on their way to fixing these problems in innovative ways, like equipping buses with Wi-Fi so athletes can do homework on their commute, and Simera told me that some school districts have even found ways to rework bus routes in a way that won't eat a huge chunk of their budgets.

And one day, after enough decision makers see the research, the timeless imprint of the sleepless scholar might just be one for the history books.

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.