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In Some Districts, the Bell Tolls Later for Teens

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Some education scholars would give their eyeteeth to see their studies used to revamp school policies in the same way that a few medical researchers have begun to influence districts nationwide.

From Oregon to Minnesota to Virginia, schools and districts have changed, or are thinking about changing, the time they ring the first-period bell.

One of the biggest reasons for tinkering with such a basic element of the school day is research on adolescent sleep needs that says teenagers don't function well, and may not learn as much, if they have to start school too early in the morning.

But even as districts consider data on the biology of teenagers, they must also weigh a variety of other factors. Often, school bus logistics and time for after-school activities compete with concerns about the internal clocks of sleepyheaded youngsters. Even law enforcement plays a role: As far as the police are concerned, the later adolescents are in school in the afternoon, the less time they have to get into trouble on the streets.

But the sleep studies can be persuasive, officials say, and they mesh well with the constant pressure on districts everywhere to improve student achievement. Well-rested, more alert teenagers, the thinking goes, should make for greater academic success.

"Why not work with nature instead of working against it?" said Mary Pattock, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis schools, which rang first bells up to two hours and 25 minutes later for secondary students this year.

Pioneering Research

In Seattle, Fairfax County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., school communities are also taking a serious look at later start times. In Salem, Ore., crowded schools, as well as the sleep research, have prompted an attempt by educators at North Salem High School to draw 300 of the school's 2,000 students into a 12:20 p.m.-to-7:30 p.m. school day next fall.

Schools are taking notice for three reasons, said Dr. Barbara Phillips, the president of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a professor of internal medicine at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

First, she said, educators and parents try hard to do what's best for children. In addition, there's no large, organized lobby that opposes such changes. And lastly, "the effects are so obvious," added Dr. Phillips. "Every parent of a teenager knows that what the research is showing is true."

Much of the current activity nationwide stems indirectly from research by Mary A. Carskadon, a prominent adolescent-sleep researcher at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Ms. Carskadon has found that puberty ushers in a shift in a child's natural sleeping and waking cycle. That shift means adolescents can't go to sleep until late at night and must sleep correspondingly late in the morning. In addition, they have a biological need for more sleep--a total of about nine hours a night--than younger children or adults. ("Too Little, Too Late," Oct. 11, 1995.)

Being deprived of that needed sleep can have serious health consequences, researchers warn. Kyla Wahlstrom, the associate director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, has turned up disturbing--but very preliminary--data from surveys of local students that suggest that students at schools with earlier starting times may be more anxious and depressed than the teenagers who are getting the sleep they need.

Ms. Carskadon's research prompted a 1994 letter from the Minnesota Medical Association to all superintendents in the state, urging districts to eliminate early starting hours in deference to teenagers' biological need to sleep longer.

Lowering Absenteeism

As a result, the hotbed of start-time changes based on sleep research has been the greater Minneapolis area. The 49,000-student Minneapolis district is perhaps the largest nationwide to enact the change.

The Edina schools, with 6,600 students, led the way by pushing the high school start an hour later for 1996-97. The district now has more-alert students and less tardiness and absenteeism, a spokeswoman said. The nearby Eden Prairie schools are to make a similar change next fall.

After months of discussion, Minneapolis essentially flip-flopped the later start times of elementary students with the earlier ones for middle and high schoolers, although there are some exceptions.

Instead of the 7:15 a.m. first bell for middle and high schoolers last year, middle school students this year get more than two hours extra in the morning before a 9:40 a.m. start. High schools, meanwhile, begin at 8:40 a.m. Elementary schools open at 7:40 or 8:40 instead of last year's 9:40.

Sleep research was one of a combination of factors that prompted the change, said Judy Farmer, a Minneapolis school board member. The research made an impact, she said, because "it gave credence to something everybody knew intuitively"--young children are energetic at 6 a.m., and teenagers want to sleep in.

Studies Continue

Ms. Farmer said district leaders are eager to find out what effects the changes will have on truancy or absenteeism.

Minneapolis should know more soon. Ms. Wahlstrom and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota have already begun interviewing students, parents, and educators for a continuation of their study of sleep and school start times.

Last year, the center published its examination of how a shift in start times might affect 17 suburban districts--a then-hypothetical move for all but Edina. It has been inundated by calls and e-mails from districts all over the country ever since.

The activity in Minnesota, in turn, has influenced changes elsewhere.

In Fayette County, Ky., the school board voted last month to start the day later, beginning in the fall, based in part on sleep research. High schoolers will go from starting at 7:30 a.m. to an 8:15 a.m. first bell. Middle schools are to move from 8 a.m. to 8:45. And elementary students will start their day earlier, from a 9 a.m. to a 7:45 start.

The shift reverses a policy change that made start times earlier in the 32,500-student district for the current school year. With the earlier start, said Superintendent Peter F. Flynn, attendance dropped off among middle and high school students. That 1 percent decrease meant a loss of about $400,000 in state aid, which is based on average daily attendance.

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