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Reactions to new school start times vary

The idea of older students starting later and younger ones earlier draws mixed reviews from those it would affect.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002


It is midmorning at Central High School, and Noelle Nardello and Richard Jaquez are seriously dragging.

They are bright kids. Both are seniors and bound for college. But today, most days in fact, they are sleepy.

"I'm tired. Definitely tired," Nardello explains.

"Yeah, I'm around there," Jaquez agrees. "I'm tired, too."

And it's no wonder. Nardello slept less than six hours the night before; Jaquez less than five. That's a far cry from 81/2 hours or more recommended for teenagers.

Certainly, both students bear part of the blame for their fatigue.

Nardello is taking two classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College and working more than 20 hours a week at Ryan's Family Steak House. Jaquez just started working five nights a week at the Brooksville Beacon Theatres, routinely working past 11:30 p.m.

Although Nardello is trying to squirrel away some money for college, both admit that a substantial portion of their work earnings goes for gas for their cars and things you might not consider essential, such as cell phones and socializing. And they are not likely to adjust their lives to end their sleep-deprived states.

Yet, as their eyes cower beneath the brightening sky, they seem to be begging for help.

They agree that the only way they could get some sleep relief would be if school started later in the morning. And both swear they wouldn't squander that sleep windfall by staying up later.

"I'd get more sleep," says Jaquez.

While it would be too late to help seniors such as Jaquez and Nardello, the county's principals are about to give the School Board a proposal that would push back the daily start times next year for middle and high schools.

High schools, which now start class at 8 a.m. or earlier, would be pushed back 20 to 25 minutes. Middle schools, which start at 7:45 a.m. or earlier, would be pushed back approximately an hour.

Both moves would be a nod to research that says teenage body clocks are not well-suited to early-morning starts. In fact, the research seems to indicate that prime sleeping time for teens is from about 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m.

Insufficient sleep in adolescent students is blamed for everything from poor attendance and discipline problems to learning difficulties and car crashes.

To make a switch feasible, the school bus schedule would have to be shifted mightily.

To even out the demand for buses, six of the county's 10 elementary schools would start their day nearly an hour earlier than they do now, which is about 9 a.m.

Elementary school principals say they think the switch will work because their youngsters tend to be bright-eyed in the morning, yet low on energy in the afternoon.

All of this, of course, is far from a done deal. Representatives of the county's principals will meet Tuesday with school transportation officials to finalize the proposal. The School Board will likely discuss it next month. After that, there may even be public hearings.

Still, superintendent Wendy Tellone and at least a couple of board members strongly favor new start times. In fact, Tellone says the principals' current proposal, if approved, could be followed with even more changes to the start times in the years ahead.

"It would be a first step toward at least changing things to get closer to what the research says we ought to do," Tellone said.

School principals are nearly unanimous in their support. But most school officials agree there may be less support among parents, students and even some teachers.

Jourdan Kramer, a seventh-grader at Fox Chapel Middle School, doesn't mind the fact that her first-period math class starts at 7:43 a.m. She gets about nine hours of sleep nightly and finds that chatting with her pals is enough to get her going in the morning.

"I'm not really tired," she said.

Besides, Kramer plays on the school's softball team. And she wonders how a later start to the school day would affect her game schedule. Right now, her games start at 3 p.m. Under the proposed schedule, she would still be in class at that time.

Kramer's classmate, 13-year-old Nick Layne, wouldn't mind sleeping in a little later. But he feels fine after the 81/2 hours of sleep he normally gets. And he's not real keen on having less daylight in the afternoon to ride his skateboard.

"I like the extra sleep," Layne said. "But I don't want to get home later."

Their teacher, a man with a booming voice named Kelly Stacy, tries to rattle his students awake by sheer vocal power. "I'm loud," Stacy said. "I get 'em going."

Stacy says he would prefer to keep the current schedule. A later start -- and subsequently a later dismissal -- would cut into the time he could spend at home with his own children in the evening.

Stacy says he and his students will adjust, whatever course the district chooses. He says the problem is not so much the starting time as the ambition and ability of the students. To that end, he says students should be trained to get up in the morning because many will have to rise early when they go to work.

"The biggest challenge is the mix of students, not the time of day," he said. As for the research, Stacy said scientists are capable of producing results to back up any position they choose.

Still, other teachers accept the research as a truth they see played out every day.

Sandra Stokes, a sixth-grade teacher at Fox Chapel, said her first-period math class is never really quite awake. She says a later start would be beneficial. "I know they're not really alert," she said. "They're still a little groggy."

That was evident from watching the ripple of yawns spread across her room at 7:45 a.m. Thursday as Stokes' 34 students reviewed for a geometry test. Eleven-year-old Caitlin Kessler started the ripple, which quickly spread across the room.

Kessler, who said she got a little less than eight hours of sleep the night before, couldn't stop yawning as she explained how she would love a later start time for school.

A classmate, 12-year-old Kyle Kinderman, said Fox Chapel's 7:43 a.m. start time was a big switch from his last school, in Pasco County, which didn't start until well after 8 a.m.

Denise Gill, president of the county Parent-Teacher Association, said the issue of adjusted start times is one her organization has discussed for more than 15 years. She's convinced the change is needed.

"It's obvious that the elementary kids are the ones that are up and raring to go in the morning and the secondary kids are the ones that need more rest and are up later in the day," Gill said.

Even so, Gill is certain some parents will not approve. For one thing, it will be something different.

Beyond that, she says some parents will object because they need their built-in babysitters -- their older children -- to arrive home before their elementary school siblings.

Under the proposed plan, that may no longer be possible for families with children at the six elementary schools that would start earlier -- Brooksville, J.D. Floyd, Deltona, Chocachatti, Suncoast and Westside.

Sue McAlpine, a mother with one child at Brooksville Elementary and another at Parrott Middle School, said she thinks parents will adjust. Though she is now home in the afternoons, until recently McAlpine had to rely on relatives to watch her kids after school.

"I think in most cases they have somebody look after their kids anyway," McAlpine said. "You make arrangements."

Unlike years ago when start-time discussions were held in the district, Gill says there is a new twist these days: After-school programs and YMCA day care are available at the elementary schools to help fill the child-care gaps.

"I think a lot of people do not like change," Gill said. "But a great deal of them will accept it once it's forced on them. As far as PTA is concerned, we want to do what is best for children."

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

STUDYING SLEEP

A considerable amount of research has been done on sleep, particularly the sleep needs of adolescent children. Here is a snapshot of some of the studies' findings:

According to sleep experts, teenagers need at least 8 1/2 to 9 1/4 hours of sleep a night, compared to an average of seven to nine hours a night for most adults.

On school nights, adolescent children average less than 7 1/2 hours of sleep. On weekends, they average nearly 9 1/4 hours.

Research suggests that changes occur in the biological clock during adolescence so that teens tend to fall asleep later and wake up later.

Studies show that the typical high school student's natural time to fall asleep is 11 p.m. or later.

For adolescent children who stick to a strict bedtime schedule, there is evidence that their "biological" nighttime doesn't end until about 8:30 a.m.

Insufficient sleep causes sleepiness (and falling into "microsleeps" during the day), difficulty concentrating on things that are not exciting, irritability and a hindered ability to learn.

Broader consequences of insufficient sleep include increased risk of unintentional injuries or death (such as traffic crashes), low grades or poor school performance, negative moods and increased likelihood of the use of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and other substances.

In 1997, Minneapolis schools changed start times at seven high schools, moving the opening bell from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. Attendance improved. There was a statistically insignificant but slight improvement in grades. And students averaged five more hours of sleep per week.

-- Sources: National Sleep Foundation; National Research Council, Institute of Medicine; the Center for Applied Research & Educational Improvement, University of Minnesota.

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