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Sleepless In High School: Why Does The Bell Ring So Early?

Aug 22, 2016
Originally published on August 21, 2016 10:05 pm


  Anya Contreras’ ninth grade algebra class started first thing in the morning, right around 7:30. “I’m not a math person, and I’m not a morning person either,” Contreras says, so she had a little routine to get through class. When she heard the teacher’s voice getting muffled, “I knew he was facing toward the board,” Contreras says. So she would close her eyes, let her head rest against the wall…and get a few seconds of precious sleep.

“And then when I would hear his voice get louder, when he’d turn around and I would feel like he was facing toward me, I would wake up so he wouldn’t get mad at me.”

Contreras graduated this spring from New World School of the Arts, a magnet school where she studied painting. Kids come from all over Miami-Dade County to go there. It's known as a demanding program, with lots of AP classes and after-hours rehearsals.

When she first visited, in eighth grade, Contreras says the students warned her. “‘If you get in here’” they told her, ‘sleep is a fond memory.’

“It’s true. I don’t think I’ve slept well for four years.”

Contreras had to leave home by 6:15 every morning, but even if she hadn’t gone to New World, she might still have kept the same hours. It's not unusual for Florida school buses to make their first pickups at 6 a.m. or even earlier.

 

The following interactive map shows the start times for Elementary, Middle and High Schools in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties. Move your mouse along the colored graphs to know the percentage of schools open by hours:

Multiply Anya Contreras by a few million and you’ll get an idea of the scale of sleeplessness in American high schools.

Manny Ortega, who lives in West Kendall, sees other parents lined up along his street in the mornings when he brings out the trash, keeping their children company while they wait for the school bus in the dark.

Ortega wakes up at 5 a.m. to drive his 11th grade son Christian to school every morning. They have to leave by 6, he explains, because “every five minutes of delay at home means another 10 minutes of drive time.”

Miami-Dade County Public Schools have invested heavily in choice and magnet programs in recent years, so that it is more common than ever for families like Ortega’s to brave the snarl of Dade County’s morning traffic to send their children to schools outside their attendance zones.

“I don’t know if I could think of a solution,” Ortega says. “I’m not an expert; I’m just a dad, but I suffer—I would love to wake up later.”

In Ortega’s family, it’s the father who gets more sleep: He goes to bed by 9 p.m., while his son Christian is up until 11 or 12.

Only a fraction of  American high school students say they get close to enough sleep, for a very basic reason: Most schools are out of sync with the teenage biological clock.

“Teenagers’ brains and their hormonal systems go through a change during puberty that basically doesn’t allow them to fall asleep until 10:45-11 at night, and basically does not support their waking before 8 a.m.,” says Kyla Wahlstrom, a former elementary school principal who studies school policy and sleep at the University of Minnesota.

Wahlstrom is part of a chorus of researchers pushing for a later start for high schools. Sleep deprivation has been linked to tobacco and alcohol use among teens, and higher rates of depression and aggressive behavior. She says it’s like when toddlers have a meltdown at the grocery store. “When you’re 4, you cry and you make noise. When you’re a teenager and you don’t get your way, you do other things that are much more subtle, and more dangerous.”

Schools that have shifted high school start times later in recent years have seen real benefits: improved grades, fewer tardies and fights, and in one rural Wyoming district, a 70 percent drop in car crashes. On the other hand, there are lots of potential consequences to consider, starting with traffic congestion. “You put a drop in the pond, and it ripples out and it has many effects,” Wahlstrom says. “It’s tough. That’s why it has to be a community decision.”

“Start times for senior high schools have been about 7:15, 7:20 for a very long time in this school district,” says Valtena Brown, Miami-Dade’s deputy superintendent for operations. “Moving an organization this large in a very quick manner is difficult.”

Lots of big districts stagger start times so the same fleet of buses can transport elementary, middle and high schoolers. Re-arranging that might mean elementary schoolers have to get up at sunrise, or it might create a childcare gap because parents or older siblings aren’t home when school gets out.

But Brown was hesitant to say whether local high schoolers are getting enough sleep. ”Based on the number of hours they are engaged at school,” she says, “I think there is enough time for students to get enough sleep. Is that happening? That’s another answer.”

Her own children, Brown recalls, were in bed early every school night, “Because that was the rule: whether or not they were sleeping, they were getting rest.”

Representatives from Broward and Palm Beach schools couldn’t remember any discussion about moving start times later. Two years ago,  Miami-Dade introduced a pilot program to let some students choose a later start time, only if their high school principals opted in first.

That program hasn’t been popular enough to roll out later start times district-wide, But, Brown says, “We’re looking at it.”

 

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