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Should teens start the school day later?

Monday, Apr. 7 | By Hannah Dellinger
Dr. David Jeck and parent Judy Olsen talked to Cynthia Pryor's English class students at Fauquier High School on Tuesday about making the 7:15AM start time for high school students later.
Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
The School Support Council for Fauquier County Public Schools has taken on the challenge of educating parents, students, faculty, administrators and community members about the benefits of adopting later school start times for high schools.

The Council decided to make later start times this year’s pet project. After reading about other counties in the area adopting later start times, the Council’s Chairwoman Judy Olsen started researching the issue. She found that numerous credible studies have shown the benefits of later start times to student’s academic, physical and emotional well-being.

“Most people’s knee-jerk reaction is going to be, ‘No, I don’t want to change,’” said Olsen. “Then they start to understand what it could look like if we changed and why we should change.”

Olsen and her subcommittee put together a presentation highlighting research that shows that high school students that have an early school start time don’t get enough sleep.

Olsen’s presentation shows data and information from a Mayo Clinic article that notes that teenagers need an average of nine hours of sleep a night.

Everyone has a natural sleep and wake cycle that changes with age and is determined by melatonin in the body. A teenager’s natural sleep cycle starts at 11 p.m. and ends at 8 a.m. Right before the sleep cycle begins, teenagers are the most alert than any other time of day. This means that forcing high school students to sleep when their bodies are telling them not to will not be effective, and teenagers that must wake up early for the bus will inevitably be deprived of sleep.

According to the council’s presentation, students who experience sleep deprivation will suffer from an inability to handle stress, poor memory, a lack of concentration, increased appetite and cravings for sugar, vision problems, diminished motor skills, mood swings and various medical problems.

Olsen outlined the physical, emotional and scholastic benefits of later school start times and more sleep for students and presented this information to the superintendent of FCPS, Dr. David Jeck.

Fewer sports injuries (American Academy of Pediatrics study.)
Increased athletic performance (Stanford University study.)
Fewer car accidents (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine study.)
Less obesity (Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania study.)

Fewer emotional outbursts.*
Decreased incidents of bullying.*
Decreased incidents of violence, including weapons (National Institutes of Health.)
Less depression, anxiety and suicide (American Academy of Sleep Medicine.)
(*Numerous studies and surveys of teenagers have shown these results.)

Scholastic :
Improved abstract thinking skills*
Improved focus and participation in class*
Improved attendance and fewer tardies*
Higher graduation rates*
Improved academic performance (Study by economist Finely Edwards in Wake County, NC.)
(*Schools across the country that moved to later start times note these changes after moving to a later start time.)

“We knew going into it that we had to have a pretty strong case,” said Olsen. “Dr. Jeck said that he wanted to see reputable studies and data, because it’s a big change to even think about making. After our presentation, he said, ‘You know, I came in here tonight thinking that I was going to poke holes in everything that you were going to present. I can’t argue with you on any of it.’”

Jeck said that while the Council makes a very good case, he doesn’t think that it is ready to make an official proposal to the School Board yet.

“I think that there’s more that needs to be vetted,” said Jeck. “They presented a lot of information that I was unaware of. But, the problems with making this happen are all logistical.”

He agreed that the county’s high school students certainly would benefit from having more sleep.

“Yes they need more sleep, my own children certainly do,” said Jeck. “But we have got to figure how to make that happen.”

The council explored possible solutions to bus pick-up issues with the transportation department. One solution would be to move elementary school days a half-hour up to an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule. This could possibly free up more buses for elementary pick up times and help parents who use before-school childcare because they need to leave for work before the bus arrives with the current system in place.

This plan would allow FCPS to move middle and high schools to a 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. day. That would mean less buses needed for middle and high school pick up and the extra buses from elementary school pick-ups could be used for athletics.

This bus schedule is similar to that of Loudoun County Public School’s and would not require the purchase of more buses or the hiring of more drivers.

“Going to a later start time would also give more time in the morning to make the decision to cancel or delay school due to inclement weather,” said Olsen. “Some of the days when we didn’t have school, we would have been able to if we’d had later start times, because it would have given us more time in the morning for the weather and the roads to get better.”

Olsen said that every time that she gives her presentation to a group, she is presented with many reasonable concerns.

“As I talk to the high school kids, most of them get it and would like to have more sleep,” said Olsen. “But they do have some concerns about whether or not they’ll have enough time for their after school activities and home work.

“As we go through and start educating them, I think that they start to realize that they will. Other school systems have done it and have data to back up the fact that if you’re more alert at school you can get your homework done in class and have more time after school.”

Olsen is now working with a group of Fauquier High School English students that is putting together a letter in support of later start times for the school division administration and possibly to be presented to the House of Delegates.

Joe Bennett is a sophomore at FHS working on the project. He wholeheartedly believes in the cause.

“I don’t think that students are really reaching our full potential,” said Bennett. “We don’t get enough sleep and our brains are suffering. I think that when students are most rested they want to get more involved and support their school. Getting start times pushed back will make our school better all around.”

Olsen said that she thinks the Council’s will gain community support, because while there may be some logistical hold-ups, it would be easy to achieve and the benefits would make the change worth-while.

“I’m hopeful that we’re building some support and momentum,” said Olsen. “It’s not going to be easy, but I think it’s doable. I am hopeful that we can make the change for Fall of 2015. There’s no reason for it to take three, four or five years.”

For more information visit the Student Support council's Facebook page, Sleep Matters Fauquier.

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