Published Online: April 9, 1997

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The Bell Will Toll an Hour Later for Sleepy Teens in Minn. District

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As the mother of two daughters, Kathy Casmer knows how tough it is to get teenagers out of bed early in the morning.

And as a school board member in Minnetonka, Minn., she worries that dog-tired adolescents aren't at their academic best at 7:15 a.m., when the first bell rings in the suburban Minneapolis district.

So the school board came up with a compromise. In the fall, many families of high school students will be able to choose between the current 7:15 starting time and one an hour later.

"We recognized that the one-size solution wasn't going to fit everyone, so we're introducing the element of choice," Ms. Casmer said.

The concerns of the 7,500-student district about the sleep needs of adolescents are supported by a growing body of research and by the Minnesota Medical Association. Two years ago, the doctors wrote to all the state's superintendents, saying that early classes defy the natural late-to-bed and late-to-rise patterns of many teenagers, leaving them deprived of sleep and, in turn, cutting down on learning.

Concern about adolescent sleep deprivation may be gaining ground among educators and policymakers elsewhere. A bill now before the Minnesota legislature would bar any secondary school from starting before 8 a.m.

And two sleep researchers at the University of Kentucky recently protested a plan to begin school 15 minutes earlier, at 7:30 a.m., for high school students in Fayette County. The experts cited a substantial and growing body of research in the area. ("Too Little, Too Late," Oct. 11, 1995.)

A study of 6,500 students in Israel spurred education officials there a few years ago to prohibit elementary and middle school starting times earlier than 8 a.m.

Cost Concerns

The 1995 letter from the Minnesota doctors' group prompted 17 districts in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to sponsor a study by the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The study looked at objections to later starting times and evaluated the initial response to such a change in the suburb of Edina, the first district in the state to heed the medical association's plea.

While neither the Minnetonka school board nor its superintendent, Daniel Jett, found the study compelling in itself, its release in February boosted starting times to the top of the district's agenda.

Mr. Jett said that opening Minnetonka's high school an hour later for all students would have cost the district about $235,000 in additional bus runs. Currently, the same buses and drivers that take high school students to school at 7:15 a.m. can be used later for elementary and middle school students.

He said he did not consider the cost-saving measure of switching the elementary and high school starting times because it would have required the younger students to walk or wait for buses "out there in the dark."

The superintendent said he proposed the choice plan as an interim measure while the district studied the issue for the 1998-99 school year.

Next fall, he said, the roughly one-third of high school students who take seven classes will not be able to shift to the later starting time. But Mr. Jett said he hoped to accommodate the choices of most other students.

"That, for me, is the important part, giving families choices rather than the school making the choice for them," he said.

Serious Consideration

The Minnetonka compromise represents "the wisdom of Solomon," said Kyla Wahlstrom, an author of the University of Minnesota study and the associate director of the education research center. "I think that's a solution for right now that's going to be politically acceptable. Traditions die hard in education."

Ms. Wahlstrom said that although her report took no position on starting times, a follow-up study at the end of this school year of Edina High School's shift to a later time was sure to see the change as positive. Teachers, students, and parents "are saying overwhelmingly that they love it," Ms. Wahlstrom said.

She added that at least four other Minnesota districts are considering a later starting time.

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