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Grassroots Effort Pushing for Later School Start Times in Fairfax County

Sandy Evans and Phyllis Payne have a mission. Tired of grumpy teenagers, these two mothers have started a grassroots effort to encourage Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) to push back the starting times for high schools. They are asking the county to synchronize the school clocks with students' body clocks so that "teens are in school during their most alert hours and can achieve their full academic potential."

West Potomac students Sean Houser and Jessica Redding both think it would be much easier to get up for an 8 a.m. start time.

Sean's mother, Eileen House, said, "I haven't heard about this particular proposal, but do know it has been brought up before and I think having a half hour later start time especially for high schoolers would be a great and welcome idea. Since it has been proven that biorhythms change during the teen years and they tend to stay up later and have a harder time getting up early the later school start would result in a more beneficial learning environment in the early morning classes."

Current FCPS bell schedules require that students wake up between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. to get to school at 7 a.m. for a 7:20 a.m. start time. Middle schools typically start between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m.

Research proves that adolescents need nine hours of sleep each night. The current start times makes it very hard for most students to get a healthy night's sleep. According to experts, hormones released by the adolescent brain make the early morning a drowsy time of day.

A large and growing amount of sleep research shows that adolescents have a different and later sleep cycle than younger children and adults. This is a matter of biology and natural circadian rhythms. The hormones and circadian rhythms that regulate sleep make it difficult for a typical teenager to fall asleep until after 11 p.m. and to wake up and be alert before around 8 a.m. Waking up early in the morning robs them of the deep sleep they need to grow and learn, note experts.

The National Sleep Foundation (www.sleepfoundation.org) has found that lack of sleep affects mood and the ability of teens to regulate mood. It also affects teens' ability to think, perform and react appropriately and safely. Building up a sleep debt over a matter of days can impair metabolism and disrupt hormone levels. Sleep debt can contribute to obesity. People do not "get used" to less sleep. It can cause millions of adolescents to be despondent and cause some of them to need medication for depression.

Some of the benefits that are believed to come from later secondary school start times are increased attendance rate; decreased tardiness; improved behavior and attitude; improved graduation rate and fewer drop outs); safer driving; less teen depression and decreased need for medications.

"It would be wonderful if the high school kids got to go in later. I think they go to sleep so late that they can't get up and then are tired all day and it can't be good for them," said Bonnie Rivkin, West Potomac High School (WPHS) parent.

Alice Coakley (West Potomac-Class of 2004) said that she was all for starting classes later, even if it meant leaving school a little later.

Her father, Jim Coakley, said, "As for now, she wakes up at 6:30 a.m., wolfs down a healthy breakfast and then leaves the house at 7 a.m. with a collection of local car-poolers. They then bob and weave their way through traffic so they can park and be seated for the commencement of the first class, 7:25 a.m. Evidently, the first class is where most finish their sleep and gradually enter alert mode; so it is a time of quiet reflection. Regardless of the havoc that a later start causes parents, whose own departure for work is somewhat dependent on a seamless departure of their students, it makes good mental sense."

CONCERNED ABOUT THE IMPACT of early start times on secondary school students, the School Board in 1998 created the Task Force to Study High School Opening Times. At the end of its inquiry, the Task Force, composed of 53 members (a cross-section of parents, teachers, school officials and community representatives) endorsed later start times for middle and high schools in the county. The Task Force also identified several issues that would have to be addressed to achieve these later times.

In the six months of its work, the group was unable to agree on a method that could be used countywide to achieve this goal but recommended continued work on the issue.

"It's a nice idea, but has always died, because of the high cost of additional busses and drivers. Maybe these people have a more creative approach that will not bust the budget. I can hear the phonics people and rote arithmetic advocates now, 'I slept through high school, and look what a great education I got.' In the same vein, I've often wondered about staggered lunch hours. I suspect that there is a "best" time to eat lunch. Because of the cost of cafeterias we have lunch periods ranging from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Too early and students get sleepy in the afternoon. Too late and students are dying of hunger," said Patrick Rea, a Mount Vernon High School parent.

There are several issues, but the two major ones seem to be the bus schedules and extracurricular activities for high school students. Other issues are work schedules for high school students with jobs, reliance on older students to care for younger siblings after school, parent and teacher schedules that might have to be adjusted, and a general resistance to change.

At one time, the Fairfax County Public School System had a two-bell schedule, with later secondary school start times. Going to a three-bell system was designed to save money and optimize the use of school buses, with each bus doing three runs in the morning and afternoon. This caused the schools' opening times to be staggered, with the high schools starting first, then the middle schools, then the elementary schools. Elementary school students went last so that they wouldn't have to wait for buses or walk to school in the dark. Once this was established, it was difficult to change because so many interconnected schedules revolved around the new start times.

TO HELP FACILITATE this change, Evans and Payne have created the website, www.sleepinfairfax.org. This site contains a petition urging FCPS to enact later start times for Fairfax County middle and high schools. it also contains SLEEP Facts; links to research; frequently asked questions; and ways to help.

The two co-chairs are also compiling research on adolescent sleep needs and cycles, to help educate Fairfax County stakeholders; working with School Board members to look for ways to make later start times happen; adding names daily to their email distribution list for interested parties to get information, news and updates; developing the web site (www.SLEEPinFairfax.org) to help get the word out about their effort and to help coordinate their activities and to make research and news on later start times easily accessible.

They also hope to find SLEEP coordinators for each high school pyramid; develop surveys to get opinions from parents, teachers, students, administrators about start times in Fairfax County; talk with principals, coaches, employers, students, parents, bus drivers and others about impediments to later start times; look for ways to help the FCPS Department of Facilities and Transportation Services come up with workable ways of developing a schedule for later secondary school start times without major added costs; and contact later start time advocates in other jurisdictions to get their ideas and learn from their experiences.

For more information, visit www.sleepinfairfax.org.