School bells exacting a toll

Sleep: In Maryland and elsewhere, teens' lack of rest has prompted calls for high schools to start later.

March 21, 2004|By Tricia Bishop and Laura Loh | Tricia Bishop and Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

At 6:01 a.m. Friday - with sunrise still 10 minutes away - bus No. 341 pulled up to its first stop en route to River Hill High School in Clarksville. But Vanessa Abadom wasn't there. The 17-year-old had overslept, again.

"It happens all the time," said bus driver Gary Rosenthal, now accustomed to the sight of the family's minivan trying to catch up with the bus - which the junior caught Friday at its fourth stop.

"They should make [school start] later," Abadom said, taking a seat and pulling out headphones. "We're just kids, we need our sleep."

Studies show that teen-agers need an average of nine hours and 15 minutes of rest per night, though most get only seven hours on school nights, partly because they have to get up before sunrise, said Mary Carskadon, a sleep expert and professor at Brown University's medical school in Providence, R.I.

In Maryland and throughout the nation, teen sleep deprivation has prompted calls for later starting times at high schools that begin before 8 a.m.

In Anne Arundel County, home of Maryland's earliest start time - 7:17 a.m. - parents at Annapolis and Severna Park high schools are talking about offering their schools as test cases.

In Howard County, where high schools begin at 7:30 a.m., educators have regularly toyed with the idea and last considered it seriously in 1997. School officials in Montgomery County and Fairfax County Va., have also looked into it.

Many advocates of later start times hope the new studies will now prompt action. Last month, in response to fresh data, the Howard Board of Education ordered the formation of a committee to examine the idea of swapping the start times of high schools and middle schools in the 2005-2006 academic year. The county's middle schools begin between 7:35 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.

The thinking is that younger middle school children have a physical makeup and social life more suited toward early rising. Physiological changes and social pressures steer older teens toward later bedtimes and later waking times, Carskadon said, though science hasn't pinpointed why.

`A wellness issue'

"This is not an issue of convenience - this is really a wellness issue," said Robert Leahy, whose son Rorie, a junior at Severna Park, routinely nods off in class.

In a 2000 report by the National Sleep Foundation, excessive sleepiness was associated with "reduced short-term memory and learning ability, negative mood, inconsistent performance, poor productivity" and diminished behavioral control.

Over the years, school districts across the United States have looked at - and some have tried - scheduling alternatives that include pushing start times forward for all grades, swapping elementary times with high school times and allowing varying levels of start times within one building.

"I've even had people call up and say we should have one school operate from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.," said Winship Wheatley, the Anne Arundel school system's transportation supervisor, recalling a request from a parent who worked nights.

Problems with change

The proposed changes have drawbacks.

Later starts would disrupt sports and after-school activities. Older children might not get home in time to care for younger siblings, and more children might end up on the streets during rush hour or after dark. The changes might also affect students' after-school jobs.

"It would mess up a lot of people's schedules," said Amy Manzolillo, a River Hill junior who has to shower at night because she can't spare the time in the morning. She needs to be at the bus stop by 6:07 a.m. to catch No. 341, whose first pickups, such as Abadom, have Howard County's longest commute.

And then there's the cost. Many districts moved to early high school start times - the average is about 7:30 a.m. nationally - as their populations grew and they needed a way to keep transportation costs under control.

Instead of hiring more buses to serve the additional schools, Howard, like many other districts, staggered the timing so the same buses could make all three - and sometimes four - runs, beginning with high school students, and moving on to middle and elementary school children.

Learning to be adults

School officials assumed older students could better handle the responsibility of early rising. "It's part of learning to be an adult," said Don Morrison, spokesman for Harford County schools, which begin at 7:45 a.m. "We don't really feel that it is that much of a burden on teen-agers to get up early and to function early."

In 1967, Howard high schools began at 9 a.m. A year later, they switched to 8 a.m. and then progressively worked their way to 7:30 a.m. over the next 35 years, said school transportation director Glenn Johnson, who came to the county in 1982.

Later starts could require additional buses, which could cost millions.

In June, Frederick County bumped its start time back to 7:30 a.m. from 8 a.m. to save $650,000 in transportation costs.

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