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Starting School Later Helps Teens

Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Date Posted: 12/10/2018

Last summer, two students from Pasadena High School and I testified in Austin before the Texas Senate Select Committee on Violence in Schools and School Security Hearing. We challenged Senator Larry Taylor and members of the committee that a healthy school culture must examine the hours teens are expected to attend school daily.
In Texas, only 12 percent of school districts start high school at or after 8:30 a.m., as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and numerous other health and education groups. My school starts at 7:15 a.m. for students. Teachers have to be at work by 6:45 a.m. Houston-area pediatrician Dr. Binal Kancherla and sleep-research psychologist Dr. Sara Nowakowski submitted letters to recommend a later school start time as part of the testimony.
The research on adolescent sleep is clear on two points: 
  • School start times are the primary factor determining how much sleep teenagers get.
  • Early high school start times result in chronic sleep deprivation in teens, which increases risk of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, and violence.
Sleep-deprived teens fall asleep in class, become disruptive and cause disciplinary problems, are more often tardy and absent, experience more sports injuries, and have an increased chance of automobile crashes. Just as important, these teens experience reduced attention, reduced problem-solving skills, and reduced academic performance. 
Starting school later provides students the opportunity to get enough sleep to help prevent these consequences and helps them come to school ready to learn. This would make teaching a much easier job.  
I started reading about research on teen sleep deprivation in 2007 when my school district announced that they were going to change the school start time from 7:50 to 7:15 a.m. I learned that adolescents, who need nine to 10 hours of sleep per night, experience a biological delayed sleep cycle at puberty, preventing most from falling asleep before 11 p.m. even with the best sleep hygiene. If they have to wake up at 5 or 6 a.m. to get ready for school, teens are only getting six to seven hours of sleep nightly.
Teen sleep deprivation is exacerbated when teens stay up even later doing homework on their computer, using other electronic devices, or dealing with personal or family issues. It is important for school districts to teach sleep hygiene utilizing existing health and biology curriculum, to consider limiting AP classes, and to inform parents about setting an electronic device curfew for their students. School districts should also realize the discriminatory and economic factors of students getting the right quantity and quality of sleep to ensure equity in education.
A colleague and I presented the adolescent sleep research and petitioned the local school board back in 2007 to leave the school start time as it was; however, our concern that starting school earlier would hurt our students was ignored. Afterward, I made sure to get to sleep early enough and thought students would do the same. 
In 2015, one of my student athletes collapsed and died on the school running track. I started asking students how many hours of sleep they receive. I was flabbergasted to hear answers ranging from four to six hours nightly! By the end of the week, these students have a sleep debt of 10 to 15 hours. A school survey confirmed that only 11 percent of students were getting the minimum eight hours of sleep. Adolescent sleep deprivation has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, reduced immune functioning, and aggressive forms of cancer.

For support and educational resources, I joined Start School Later, a national nonprofit organization with more than 100 chapters in the United States. As the Houston Area Chapter Leader, I work to bring awareness of teen sleep deprivation and the need for healthy school hours to my district as well as other school districts in the Houston area, which has the largest cluster of school districts with early start times in the state. 
This year, Houston ISD, the largest school district in Texas, and Goose Creek CISD returned to healthy school hours for their middle and high schools. My vision is to see all middle schools and high schools in Texas follow suit to ensure our students’ health, safety, and academic success. 
Yen Rabe teaches French at Pasadena High School.