Column: For a fresher start, push back the bell

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The more I write about schools, the more convinced I get that the answers to our education problems lie far from campus.

Teens spend seven hours a day in school, 180 days a year. But let’s be honest: That’s about a third the time they spend playing Grand Theft Auto.

But just because some problem in a kid’s life develops outside the classroom doesn’t mean schools are powerless to fix things.

Today’s example: sleep.

Teenagers are always accused of staying up too late and being too lazy to get up in the morning. Frazzled parents know how hard it can be to rouse a 16-year-old from slumber in time for the bus.

But there’s an established body of research that says teenagers aren’t lazy because of any sort of moral weakness. Their bodies just aren’t designed the same way adults’ are. (Or younger kids’ are, for that matter.) They can’t help it.

The queen of teen sleep research is Mary Carskadon, a Brown University professor. Her studies have found that an average teenager gets about 7.5 hours of sleep a night, when their bodies are screaming out for about 9.25.

She describes early-morning teenagers as being in “a kind of a gray cloud.” They can’t concentrate on anything, and they get cranky. I’ve been in enough North Texas classrooms in the morning to recognize the bleary-eyed race of zombies she’s talking about.

Her latest research looked at how much melatonin teens’ bodies produce. That would be the hormone that promotes sleep – you can find it in pills you buy to fight jet lag or insomnia.

Her research found that teenagers don’t start producing large amounts of melatonin until 10 or 11 p.m. – significantly later than for adults or elementary-age kids. And those melatonin levels don’t start to drop in teens until around 8 a.m. – again, later than other folks.

It’s not surprising, of course, that teenagers and hormones are a combination that can cause trouble. But what in the world can educators do about hormones?

They can stop starting high school at absurdly early hours. In North Texas, what time the first bell rings is a decision of each school district. And the decisions vary widely.

Checking around, the earliest start time I found is in Mansfield, at 7:15. The latest are in Lancaster and Plano, which don’t start until 9:00. And the trend seems to be moving later.

Until 2002, Frisco schools’ bell schedules were perfectly backwards. Frisco High started class at 7:50. That’s not outrageously early by local standards. But for kids who have before-school sports practice or club meetings, it could mean waking up at 5:30 each morning.

The district decided to switch things around. It pushed the high school’s first classes back to 8:45.

Rick Burnett, Frisco High’s principal for the last 14 years, noticed the difference. “Watching kids as they walk into the buildings, they’re definitely more alert, better prepared to start the day,” he said. “There’s a marked difference.”

He said he’s confident the change has had an effect on academic performance, though he acknowledges he doesn’t have any data to prove it. “We had to move some things around, but it really wasn’t a difficult adjustment,” he said.

Of course, delaying the start of school has complications. There are extracurricular activities to schedule and bus routes to rework. And parents are notorious for resisting changes to something as fundamental as when to get your kids to school.

All those concerns were raised in Frisco and in other districts making the move. They’re mostly problems that affect adults who might be inconvenienced and have to shift things around.

But people adjust to change over time. The question is: Do we want to arrange our public schools to make life convenient for adults or so that kids can best learn?

If it were the latter, we probably wouldn’t be asking kids to do trigonometry in a gray cloud.