*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on February 12, 2018. It can also be found online here.
I almost ran a kid over the other day. It was pre-dawn, a wintry, early morning, and I was out for a run. Shoulders hunched, he shuffled along, the way drowsy teenagers do, and left me wondering how he possibly could have missed my fluorescent clothes or flashlight.
Sleepwalking his way to school, he was destined to be a teen zombie for the first hour or two of classes.
Which is the problem: every day, our Pikes Peak area middle and high schools force half-awake teenagers, against their biological clocks, to start school a solid hour before their bodies are physically ready to learn. Our kids take tests with their brains still partly asleep.
As Daniel Pink points out in his book “When,” puberty is the “most profound change” in a young person’s life – their bedtimes and wake times shift later – and this night owl routine lasts well into their 20s. To not recognize this truth punishes teenagers; the Journal of Pediatrics points out that these sleep-deprived kids are “at a higher risk for depression, suicide, substance abuse and car crashes.”
Teen sleep deprivation is also linked to “obesity and a weakened immune system.” With such severe consequences, it’s no wonder the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidelines in 2014 for middle and high schools to begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
Yet, stubbornly, it seems all the high schools in the Pikes Peak region start well before 8:30 a.m. Cheyenne Mountain High School’s classes begin at 7:35 a.m. (with an occasional “zero” hour that starts at 6:40 a.m.), Palmer Ridge begins at 7:40 a.m., Manitou Springs at 8:05 a.m., Fountain-Fort Carson 8 a.m., and Palmer is 7:30 or 7:40 a.m., depending on the day of the week.
Even if we set aside the serious health consequences that come with these early start times, let’s look at the negative impact on academic performance.
One influential 2011 study on school start time’s effect on adolescent academic achievement, conducted at the Air Force Academy, found that “starting the school day later in the morning had a significant positive effect on student academic achievement.”
When a student was randomly assigned to a class that started before 8 a.m., they scored “significantly worse in all their courses taken on that day compared with students who are not assigned to” a pre-8 a.m. class.
Pink’s book demonstrates that when school districts choose to start middle and high schools after 8:30 a.m., their kids generally do better when it comes to attendance and achievement. A study that covered 30,000 students spread across seven states found high school graduation rates shot up 11 percent in just two years.
Sometimes, the right thing is obvious. This really is a cost-free way to make our kids healthier, happier, and improve their performance.
So why haven’t we y done this? Surely knowledgeable educators and informed parents are aware of these well-publicized findings.
One obstacle is busing schedules, but by my reckoning the real culprits are parents and coaches. Parents want school drop-off to be a seamless transition to the workday, and coaches want an early end to the school day to maximize practice time.
While busing might be an intractable issue, the other opposition is obviously flawed. Adult convenience should never harm kids, physically, mentally, or academically.
Others will charge: what difference can 30 minutes or an hour make? Well, a lot. Beyond the health benefits, the study at the Air Force Academy found later start times were equivalent to putting a higher quality teacher in the classroom, a benefit for all kids.
But this policy change likely would have an even greater impact on the lower performing kids, the ones treading the razor-thin line between graduating and not. Without a diploma, their future economic prospects are seriously damaged, which has negative spillover effects on the entire community.
The Gazette recently reported the region’s high school graduation and dropout figures. While better than the state average, there are still far too many Pikes Peak kids that don’t finish.
They need a nudge, and, like that slouchy kid I nearly ran over, the research tells us a little more sleep would give our kids a boost to better health and academic scores. And the best part? It wouldn’t cost a dime.