Parents and teachers can attest to teenagers' need for adequate sleep, which often conflicts with their seemingly innate desire to stay up late. Without enough Zs, teen heads fall on desks during class, tardiness is more prevalent, academic performance may suffer and the risk of being in a car wreck en route to school increases, according to several studies.
And yet high schools around the country start classes before 8 a.m. despite parental frustration and a growing body of research on teen brains that show it's not what's best for students' health or academic performance. The average American adolescent is chronically sleep-deprived. A National Sleep Foundation poll found 59 percent of 6th through 8th graders and 87 percent of high school students were not getting the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.
As school districts around the country mull whether to delay the start of the school day, The American Academy of Pediatrics recently decided to weigh in on the issue, recommending middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later, aligning school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of teens, whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.
Kudos to Superintendent Jeff Moss and other Beaufort County School District leaders who took note of the mounting body of research -- and the number of sleepy students -- and pushed the start time at Hilton Head Island High School to 8:35 a.m. from 7:45 a.m. this school year.
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While it's still too early to see whether the change will result in increased academic performance, preliminary results are encouraging. Teachers are reporting a decrease in tardiness and sleeping in class. And students say they're feeling much more alert and are (gasp) even finding time to eat breakfast before heading to class.
The change has also earned the school some positive national press with a segment that aired on "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" last Monday.
If test scores and tardiness rates show the new schedule is having a positive impact, Moss said he will consider implementing the change at the district's other high schools.
Of course, the new schedule has caused a few headaches. Since the dismissal time has also been pushed back to about 3:30 p.m., concerns have been raised about whether students will have adequate time to study or participate in clubs and other after-school activities and whether student-athletes will have enough time to get to road games. And the first week of school was marked by traffic jams since the high school's dismissal time was the same as the adjacent elementary school's time.
District leaders have been creative in addressing the issues, expanding students' lunch time to 50 minutes instead of 25 minutes starting in September. This should give extra time to do homework, get tutoring help and hold club meetings. Also, the high school's dismissal time was pushed back by six minutes to relieve traffic congestion.
We're encouraged to see district leaders making these necessary tweaks instead of throwing in the towel. Doing what is best for students' health and academic performance should be a top priority. Beaufort County is fortunate to have leaders willing to try something new in pursuit of those goals.