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Sleepy Students


By James Utt
By James Utt

There has been a kerfuffle recently over possibly moving the start of the school year to an earlier date in August. As a retired teacher who spent more than 35 years in the classroom, I believe that this issue should take a back seat to a far more important one. It is not when in the year school should start, but when in the day it should begin. The vast majority of middle schools and high schools begin their day too early.

Let me quote this mouthful from Scientific American to build the foundation of my argument:  ”Biological research shows that circadian rhythms shift during the teen years, pushing boys and girls to stay up later at night and sleep later in the morning. This shift is driven by a change in melatonin in the brain starting around 13 and peaking at 17 or 18.” The trouble is that they can’t sleep enough because schools start too darn early.

Studies vary, but not by much. They almost universally say teens need between eight and 10 hours of sleep a night. Only 15 percent of teens in this country get eight and a half hours and this presents a health and academic problem.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, not getting enough sleep is associated with several factors including drinking, smoking, as well as poor academic performance. They have gone so far as to say school start times are a public health hazard. A major analysis in the Journal of Pediatrics concluded that, “U.S. schools start at such an early time that most teens are essentially brain dead when they go to these early classes.”

I loved teaching and loved where I taught, El Toro High School. But every so often the powers that be would assign me a first period class that consisted of mostly upper class students. It started at the idiotic time of 7:05 a.m. The students would stagger in, bodies unwashed, teeth unbrushed, hair uncombed. Think they had a healthy breakfast, the most important meal of the day? Hardly. Many of these first period students had about as much acuity as the zombies in “The Walking Dead.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that teens start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. This would allow students to get more sleep, especially REM sleep which is important in controlling moods. Some of you may say, ”Won’t teens just stay up later if school starts later?” The research says they will not. Some opponents of a later start time put forward the argument that early starts gets teens ready for the “real world.” This overlooks the fact that many jobs start later than 8:30 in the morning and once you get past 18, you generally need less sleep.

What about academic performance? A few states have instituted later starting times in recent years and guess what? Grades went up. Israel and Italy have had similar results. So, we get healthier kids who get higher grades. Win, win, right?

Now, let’s look at the schools in our city. Thurston Middle School has a zero period several days a week that begins at 7:35 a.m. When I inquired at Thurston who takes this period, I was informed that about half are eight graders, who are most likely 13. Just the age that your circadian rhythms start to change and you need more sleep.

At Laguna Beach High School, first period begins Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. Not all students start this early, but many do. On Thursday, from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. the school has set aside a block of time when students may visit teachers for extra help. Tough choice, sleep or extra help.

I am aware that moving to a later start time would cause problems. Parents may have to go to work before their kids go to school. Extracurricular activities like sports and drama would be pushed back later in the day. There is also the need to cram as many classes as you can onto your transcript. These are fair questions. But in the end, I do not think we can ignore the CDC’s warning that school start times, as they now stand, are a public health issue for the children of our nation.


James Utt, whose circadian rhythms are long past those of an 18 year old, is going to stay up late tonight and watch the Angels on their drive to the World Series.



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  1. In a future column you should pose some solutions to the questions you raise in the last paragraph. Each area of concern has vocal proponents that would object to any change to the current system. Athletic participation does not have to suffer with a later start. At El Toro students usually start second period. which starts at 8:00. If students start at 8:30 that’s only 30 minutes later than usual, hardly a deal breaker for your proposal. Extra classes can be taken at the local community college where students can get high school or college credit for them. On-line classes offer classes that can be accelerated classes or make-up classes. This is the latest trend in education that can be used to mitigate the impact of a later start time. The only sticky point would be the parents leaving for work earlier than their children. Surely there is a solution to this problem. Could schools provide access to the library or classes supervised by designated teachers? The solution just doesn’t seem to be that difficult.

  2. I know Ketta Brown is aware of these studies because she brought it up at a meeting a few years ago. She also said starting later would interfere with CIF sports. One solution to that would be having one less elective on the students’ schedules and making PE or their sports be last period. Do juniors and seniors really need multiple free periods? My daughter is stressed out daily with the early start time and doesn’t get nearly enough sleep.


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