Canadian School Finds Later Start Time Means Better Grades

By Trish Crawford, Toronto Star — January 21, 2011 3 min read
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Aaron Best tries to ignore the buzzing that’s ruining a perfectly good dream. Snuggled under the covers in his bedroom, the 18-year-old 12th grader reluctantly opens his eyes.

Groggy from playing video games till after midnight, he slaps the snooze button and drifts off for another 10 minutes, then rolls out of bed at 7:30 a.m.

He’s out the door in half an hour for his hour-long commute to Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute, but not before giving his mom, Donna, a hug and a cheerful goodbye.

That’s the biggest change she’s noticed since Aaron transferred to Eastern and started getting an extra hour of sleep—Eastern is the only high school in Toronto that starts its school day an hour later than usual, at 10 a.m.

“He’s more pleasant in the morning,” she says, “His mood is a lot better. I’ve gotten more hugs. I didn’t used to want to talk to him in the morning because he’d be crabby.”

The experiment, which began in the fall of 2009, is an acknowledgment by educators that the biological clocks of teenagers leave them sluggish in the morning. The Canadian Pediatric Society reported in 2008 that high-school students need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night and may struggle in school if they don’t get it.

The Toronto District School Board is monitoring Eastern’s experience carefully, comparing marks, attendance and lateness before and after the project started. It is a small school, with only 450 students, 80 per cent of whom come from out-of-district, which can mean long commutes.

Early indications are that there have been some positive changes.

The school reports the Grade 11 math failure rate has dropped from 45 percent to 17 percent.

Wayne Erdman, who taught there for 27 years before retiring last fall, after the first full year of the 10 a.m. start, says the difference was “like night and day,” even though it was the same course and the same student mix. “They are not strong in math, they don’t do a lot of homework. They were a good group to do an experiment on.”

And he noticed something else.

“They weren’t falling asleep in class as much,” he says. “Many work late or are up early to take brothers and sisters to school.”

And attendance improved, he says, though an official study of the impact of the late start has not been completed.

While it would be nice to see improved attendance and punctuality, principal Sam Miceli says he’s more interested in the students’ health and academic well-being. “The point is this is a health issue and we want them to be more productive.”

Eastern has received more than a dozen queries from North American school boards wondering whether the experiment is working.

It is a problem that all jurisdictions must grapple with. A 2006 poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation in the U.S. found that North American teens are seriously sleep deprived. Noting that they need at least nine hours of sleep a night as their bodies grow, the poll found they were averaging just 6.9 hours.

Sleep researcher Mary Carskadon, who headed the poll task force, says sleep deprivation seriously affects their ability to learn.

“When you don’t get enough sleep, it is hard to pay attention, to focus. And kids, who are inclined this way, are more likely to act out. Driving a car can be a little riskier,” says Carskadon, a professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Don’t blame the kids, she says. The problem is largely hormonal. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. It helps regulate other hormones and maintains the body’s circadian rhythm—the 24-hour clock that plays a critical role in when we fall asleep and when we wake up. Darkness triggers melatonin production. In teenagers, whose hormones are in flux, it is released much later—around 11 p.m.—than in adults.

That’s why they’re not sleepy at bedtime.

The sleep cycle has four stages, plus a period of REM (rapid eye movement) when we dream. While the deepest sleep occurs in stages 3 and 4, we need to satisfy all stages for a good night’s rest, says Carskadon.

The cycle is repeated a number of times each night, with the REM dream interval getting longer each time. When a teenager doesn’t get enough sleep it robs them of the longer dreams that contribute to feelings of well being. It’s also thought to help consolidate the information absorbed during the day, she says.

And what do the students at Eastern think of the late start?

Bukhari Adan transferred to Eastern in Grade 10, drawn by its size. The late start was a bonus for the 16-year-old, now in Grade 11. “It’s way better. It gives me time to do things and get more sleep. I can chill more at night. I also have more time to do assignments, so I’m doing better.”

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