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Late to bed, late to rise: Teens' sleep cycle calls for delayed school start

Teenagers' sleep cycle, late to bed, late to rise, has been well documented, but high schools have been slow to accommodate it. Despite calls for a later start to the school day, implementing them could be a logistical nightmare. 

By StaffAssociated Press / July 25, 2013

Severna Park High School students arrive for class on a weekday in March 2012.

AP Photo/The Capital, Paul W. Gillespie

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Quinn Cooney of Mill Creek, Wash., is excited about starting high school in September, but she's not looking forward to waking up at 5:30 a.m. to arrive on time. Classes for ninth-graders start at 7:30 a.m., 45 minutes earlier than they did in middle school.

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"I think it is going to be harder to get up," said Quinn, 13. "I do think it is better to start early so that we can be finished early and do things after school, but I am worried that if I have a boring class for my first period that it will be hard to stay awake."

Decades of sleep research have confirmed what parents know: It's hard for teenagers to wake up early. Some high schools have adopted late starts around 8:30 a.m. to improve attendance and performance. But other districts say it's too complicated to shift schedules because of logistics involving buses and after-school activities.

About 40 percent of US public high schools open before 8 a.m., according to the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, with just 15 percent starting 8:30 a.m. or later. In districts where early starts are necessary because the same bus does multiple runs for high school, middle school, and elementary students, teens often get the early shift.

That's the case in Anne Arundel County, Md., where public high schools start at 7:17 a.m. and buses start running at 5:50 a.m. Lisa Rodvien taught high school there, in Annapolis, and says attendance at her first-period classes was "as low as 50 percent or below." Among those who showed up, "I would definitely see three or four kids with their heads down. You walk over to them to wake them up and get them to sit up, and you see that they're exhausted."

Earlier this year, Anne Arundel school officials laid out options for delaying start times to anywhere from 7:32 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. along with potential complications, such as additional costs if buses are added, child care issues where late-day schedules might prevent teens from picking up younger siblings after school, and implications for teams if they end up playing in the dark. Bob Mosier, spokesman for Anne Arundel schools, said no decisions have been made.

But the focus on logistics is frustrating for Heather Macintosh, spokeswoman for a national organization called Start School Later that's headquartered in Annapolis. "What is the priority?" she said. "It should be education, health and safety. All the other stuff may not be perfect — you may have to have your violin lesson before school or install lights on your field (for sports) — but it will work itself out."

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