School & District Management

Should Teenagers Start School Later?

By Laura Heinauer Mellett — October 11, 2013 2 min read
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Here’s one of the ways that a school district near the nation’s capital is rethinking the school day: Let students keep hitting the snooze button.

A recent Washington Post story says that Fairfax County high school seniors are allowed by the district to start late—as late at 10:30 a.m. in some cases—if they get permission from their principal and parents and are on track to graduate.

The Virginia district’s first period “opt-out program” is apparently unique to the Washington area, the story suggests, and an answer to parents and advocates who have been arguing for years that the 7:20 a.m. start time for high schoolers was detrimental to teen health. The plan, the story said, just formalizes in many cases an unofficial practice of parents sending a doctor’s note saying their kids require more sleep for health reasons.

The rollout of the program was kept quiet so participation is still low, the story said, but parents quoted reported that kids who are participating definitely have more energy. The plan also had some critics. Some teachers of elective courses expressed concern that students may not take their classes, the story said.

A later start time is another example of how educators are trying to find ways of breaking out of the traditional time constraints of the school day to better engage students in learning. However, in the case of Farirfax County, some will surely argue that trimming the school day to accomplish it is the wrong way to go.

Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chimed in on the issue recently, suggesting that a later start time for teens may be a good idea.

Meanwhile, this week the superintendent of another suburban Washington school district, in Montgomery County, Md., said he supported a later start time for high school students.

A recent Education Week story highlights some of the research done on the issue of appropriate start times. The story said that a study found that pushing them back by an hour at one middle school increased standardized test scores by 2 to 3 percentage points. It also said that as adolescents hit puberty, their natural sleep cycles begin to shift, making it normal for them to be awake until 11 p.m.

With some schools starting as early as 7 a.m., that means many teenagers aren't getting the recommended nine hours of sleep for proper rest and development," the story said.

Should schools adapt to the circadian rhythms of teenagers? Or is perhaps educating them and their parents about healthier habits the right way to deal with the issue? Could allowing students a little more sleep translate into more energy and engagement when they are in school?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.