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Education Chief Suggests Later Start Times for H.S. Students

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WGGB/AP) — High school students could start their days later and get more sleep if the nation’s top education official gets his way.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Wednesday said studies have shown that students do better if they start their school day rested. But Duncan added the decision is up to local schools and says he won’t be telling superintendents when to schedule their first bells.

At least one local school department agrees and is making changes, but Chicopee Superintendent Richard Rege says it’s not for them.

“We see this topic come and go along with school uniforms and you know all other types if issues,” said Rege, who goes onto say “You’ll find reports that show there is, you’ll find equal research that shows that it really doesn’t make a significant difference.”

For Chicopee School Committee Member David Barsalou the start time change creates logistical problems.

“On a high school level my biggest concern would be sports programs, after school activities, kids that have jobs that start at three o’clock in the afternoon. I just think it would be a real nightmare personally,” said Barsalou.

Secretary Duncan acknowledges a later start time could be problematic for bus schedules but adds schools are there to serve students, not adults.

Duncan also says “common sense” tells him teenagers are struggling to wake up early and make it to the buses. He says students who arrive at school rested and ready to learn do better.

The logistical changes aren’t stopping Northampton. This spring the School Committee voted to push back the high school start time. The change goes into place in either January or next September.

“It may be a lot of work to implement it, but once it’s done the benefits are gonna far outweigh the amount of work it takes to get something that’s gonna be beneficial to all our students,” said Northampton School Committee Member Blue Duval.

She explains the School Committee has been looking at this issue for several years.

“The sleep foundation shows that students need more sleep, especially at the adolescence age and that’s what we are gonna try to do, get kids the sleep they need,” said Duval.

Research backs up Duncan’s worries about student sleep patterns and academic achievement.

“Children who sleep poorly are doing more poorly on academic performance,” said Joseph Buckhalt, a distinguished professor at Auburn University’s College of Education.

He has been tracking sleeping patterns of 250 children as well as their IQ tests, performance on standardized tests, their grades and behavior. His findings suggest sleep is just as important to student achievement as diet and exercise.

“All the data that we’ve seen on sleep shows that children, especially teenagers, are sleeping less,” he said. “If you don’t sleep well, you don’t think very well.”

Part of the lack of sleep is biological as teenagers go through puberty, he said. But afterschool programs such as sports or clubs, as well as increased pressure for students to perform well academically, keep them up later than is prudent. Add in caffeine, non-step social interactions through text messages and Facebook and sometimes less-than-ideal home environments, and students have steep challenges.

For students from less affluent families, the effects can be compounded, Buckhalt found.

“Fifty years ago we learned that hungry kids don’t do well in school. Now we know that sleepy children don’t do well in school,” Buckhalt said. “Now we have to do something about it.”

That doesn’t mean schools are rushing to delay the first period for high school students.

“If any issue cries for local decision making, this is one,” said Patte Barth, director for the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association.

The professional organization has not taken a position on the ideal time to start schools, but Barth said Duncan is correct. “Teenagers are much more alert later in the day rather than earlier,” she said.

In schools where the day starts later, there have been immediate gains, she said.

“Some districts have made these adjustments to the school day and they have found among their teenagers that attendance is better, kids aren’t falling asleep,” she said.

But it comes at a cost for other students, both in terms of dollars and opportunities because schools are operating with limited resources.

“If you’re starting the high school kids later, you’re starting elementary kids earlier. No one wants those kids out on the streets when it’s dark,” she said. “If they’re contemplating this switch, they need to look at the costs.”

Duncan spoke to NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show.”

Follow Philip Elliott on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/philip_elliott

Associated Press

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