Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, and Nancy Floreen, the current president of the Montgomery County Council.
Many high school students rise well before dawn to catch the bus for 7:25 a.m. first period classes. According to some parents, this means perpetually sleep-deprived students who aren’t performing as well as they could. Whether high schools should start later is an ongoing debate, currently flaring in three local districts. Kojo and guests weigh sleep research and petitions from parents against bus schedules, after-school sports and the challenge of changing the status quo.
- Patricia O'Neill Member, Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education
- John McLaren Physics and Biology Teacher, Centreville High School, Fairfax County
- Judith Owens Director of Sleep Medicine, Children's National Medical Center
- Phyllis Payne Co-founder, SLEEP in Fairfax (Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Every parent of a teenager knows how tough it is to get your kid to go to bed at a decent time. The only thing harder is getting him or her up for school in the morning, especially in the winter. A lot of high school students get up before dawn to catch the bus and are at their desks before 7:30 a.m.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs the school buses head back out to pick up middle-schoolers and then elementary school students, some heads are drooping in high school classrooms, with kids struggling to focus and stay awake. Sleep researchers say American adolescents are chronically sleep deprived, that they do better in school if they slept longer at night, but the logistics of running a big school district make it hard to balance the need for more sleep with bus schedules, after-school sports and daycare for the younger kids.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn past years, Fairfax and Montgomery County public schools rejected moving start times later, saying it was too complicated and too costly to make the switch, but both districts are studying the question again, thanks to petitions from parents asking for a fresh look at the options. Joining me to talk about sleep and school schedules is Patricia O'Neill. She's a member of the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education. Thank you so much for joining us.
MS. PATRICIA O'NEILLIt's my pleasure.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Phyllis Payne, co-founder of SLEEP in Fairfax. Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal is what that acronym means. Phyllis Payne, thank you for joining us.
O'NEILLI'm happy to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Dr. Judith Owens is director of sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center. Thank you for joining us.
DR. JUDITH OWENSThanks for this opportunity.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. How would your family life change if school started later? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Judith Owens, I'll start with you. And with some biology, how does the need for sleep change when children reach adolescence? Why is it hard for them to fall asleep before 11 o'clock at night?
OWENSWell, Kojo, I want to really emphasize that this scientific evidence is really irrefutable. This information has really been demonstrated now by multiple different researchers and is really very compelling. What happens at around the time of puberty is that there is a shift in circadian rhythms so that the average teenager moves usually about two hours later in terms of their natural sleep onset, so most teenagers can fall asleep at around 11 o'clock at night.
OWENSAt the same time that that's happening, sleep needs do not really change dramatically from middle-school or elementary-school age, and so the average teenager needs about nine to nine and a quarter hours of sleep in order to be sufficiently rested. So if you do the math, if they can't fall asleep much before 11, their natural wake time is around 8 a.m.
NNAMDIWell, your studies show that a lot of teens are chronically sleep deprived because they don't get the recommended nine hours of sleep a night. What does your research show are the consequences of this sleep shortage?
OWENSCertainly, academic achievement is impacted as well as other issues that are very important to school performance, such as attendance, tardiness rates improved, but, equally importantly, it's critical to understand what other kinds of health repercussions are associated with insufficient sleep in teens. For example, drowsy driving accidents are much more common in schools which start earlier.
OWENSWe also have other health-related risks. We know that chronic sleep loss is related to cardiovascular morbidity, so increase rates of hypertension and stroke and heart attacks may be awaiting these kids down the line as a result of their chronic sleep loss. And finally and equally importantly are the mental health issues. We know that sleep loss in teenagers is associated with increased rates of depression and even more alarmingly increases in suicidal ideation.
NNAMDILet's talk with teachers because a teacher to see what's happening in the classroom. Joining us now by phone from Centreville High School is John McLaren. He's a physics and biology teacher at that Fairfax County high school. John McLaren, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOHN MCLARENWell, good afternoon. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDISchools start for you, John, at 7:25 a.m. You teach physics first thing in the morning and then again after lunch. What's the difference that you observe in the energy level in those two classes?
MCLARENWell, my first class, my early class is hard to keep awake. I mean they're, you know, I'm constantly pulling at them for interaction and in trying to answer questions. And the class that I have after lunch is, you know, far more active, and I kind of have the opposite. I'm constantly trying to kind of keep them down and less energized, I guess, I should say.
NNAMDIWhat is your own day like? What time do you get up and get to school?
MCLARENI usually get up a little bit after 5:00. I fortunately only live about 15 miles away from my school, so I don't have a long commute. I leave my house by about 6 o'clock, and I'm usually at school by about 6:30 or 20 minutes till seven. And then classes start at about 7:25 here.
NNAMDIHow do you think your students feel about starting school at -- that hour, 7:25?
MCLARENMost of them don't like it. They would like to be able to sleep in. I -- actually, I was talking to my classes today about this, and they were split about 50-50. They have a later time to be able to sleep in. About half of them would go to bed at the usual time and take advantage of the extra half hour, hour, whatever time that they could get, whereas, you know, the -- roughly, the other half would say, "Oh, you know, I'll stay up a little bit later because I know I don't have to be at school so early." So...
MCLAREN...my unscientific poll.
NNAMDIWe dragged John McLaren out of a teen-taught class at Centreville High School, so you need to get back to class. Thank you for joining us, John.
MCLARENThank you very much.
NNAMDIJohn McLaren is a physics and biology teacher at Centreville High School in Fairfax County. Phyllis Payne, you're co-founder of the group SLEEP in Fairfax. What would you like to see happen in Fairfax County high schools?
MS. PHYLLIS PAYNEI would like to see the school board and the superintendent lead the way to healthier high school start times for our students, at least after 8:00, and we've been working on this for a while.
NNAMDIEight years. You've been -- you started this effort eight years ago, and in 2009, the Fairfax County School Board voted down a plan to push high school start times an hour later, but in April, the board set a goal of starting its high schools after 8 a.m. and hired a consultant to study how to make that switch. What's changed in the intervening years?
PAYNEWe have a new school board. And the previous school board was actually divided evenly. Six were in favor of moving forward and trying to find a solution, and six didn't want to work on it anymore. The plan that they put out in 2009 had some poison pills that, by the end of the community engagement, even SLEEP supporters were, you know, didn't think that was the best plan and wanted to continue working towards resolving some of the challenges.
PAYNESo now with the new school board, they have officially recognized the science and the research, and they have a real desire to move forward and finding the best-case solutions for Fairfax.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk school boards because Patricia O'Neill is a member of the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education. The drive to move school start times later is not new in Montgomery County, either. You were on the school board in 1999 when the board rejected a proposal to start high schools later by rearranging bus schedules. Why has transportation always a big conundrum in any discussion of changing start times?
O'NEILLWell, running a school system is a bit like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle. Every single morning, we bus over 90,000 kids, and Montgomery County covers about 500 square miles. Dating back to 1993 when the county council made a significant cut to the transportation budget for Montgomery County Public Schools, that's when school -- the school system went to a four-tier approach, high school, then middle school, then an earlier elementary and a later elementary.
O'NEILLThey also extended the walking distance in order to cover that budget -- the budget deficit. So we looked in 1999 at a variety of options. It's one that the board cares deeply about. I was on that board in 1999. I was first elected in 1998. I had a teenager and a third grader at the time, and it was one that I was very interested in.
O'NEILLBut when faced with the options and the variety of problems connected with those 15 options, the board -- we actually went back to the drawing board, and we said, "What about if we eliminated transportation for high school students? Could you piece together kids getting to school via private car, ride on in Metro bus? Would we be able to accomplish this later bell time doing that?"
O'NEILLAnd the answer was there's not enough coverage in Montgomery County to do that. We also looked at the very idea of having a two-tier high school start time, having some kids come early and some kids come later. And we wanted to have a pilot at that time, and no high school stepped forward and volunteered, and so it was put on the back burner. Our superintendent has now said that we will take another look. He has said that we...
NNAMDIStarted a working group.
O'NEILLYep. We'll have a multi-stakeholder workgroup. We'll look at the medical research, and we will pull together a variety of people, all segments of the community, high school, middle school and elementary because it does change the significant, would impact people at every single level.
NNAMDITwo aspects of that I'd like to discuss, the latter being since he has put together -- Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools -- if that group is going to be looking at this, they're going to be looking at districts in our region that have already started high schools later now, like Arlington and Loudon counties. Are there lessons you think to be learned from those districts?
O'NEILLWell, sure. Actually, there's a group called the Washington Area Boards of Education. That's an informal group of board of education members. And we looked at Arlington County. Arlington County and I may not have the exact history correct but I -- as I understand it, they moved everybody back by about 20 minutes and then flip-flopped high school and middle school. And I understand that Loudon County is a later start time.
O'NEILLI'm not sure how they've accomplished it, but Arlington County made that change, and they slid everyone about 20 minutes, and then they flip-flopped high school and middle school. There are some problems connected with the middle-school kids because you're talking about early adolescents at peak growth time. Our middle school students start at 7:55, our high school at 7:25. It appears to me that, you know, if you make a change, somebody is going to go early and somebody is still going to go late.
NNAMDIAnd the complication, the conundrum with buses is that those of us who see the buses in the morning, we say, "Oh, well, that bus driver is just making one stop." But then, apparently, the buses take high school students. Then they go back later and get middle school and elementary school students.
O'NEILLYes. And, actually, they make two runs of elementary. It's like running the train system, a very intricate train system because we have an elementary school start time, one, at 8:50 and one at nine -- 10. And so on the general education buses, they're making four runs before they get their last -- they're making four runs with their last passengers arriving in about 9:10.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. If you have called -- and several of you have already -- stay on the line. We will get to your call. If you'd like to call -- do you see evidence that your teen is sleep deprived? 800-433-8850 is the number. Or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. We're talking -- should high schools -- or asking should high schools start later? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing whether high school should start later with Patricia O'Neill. She's a member of the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education. Phyllis Payne is co-founder of SLEEP, Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal in Fairfax, and Dr. Judith Owens is director of sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center. Judy Owens, we talked with the high school teacher John McLaren earlier, who conducted a kind of informal poll around his students. What did you want to say about that?
OWENSWell, I would like to point out because this is often an argument that's brought up against changing school start times that, in fact, the evidence that we have pretty much across the board is that adolescents actually do not change their bedtimes once school start times have been delayed. And they typically go to bed at the same time. And, in fact, in a study that we did, they actually ended up going to bed about 20 minutes on average earlier after the change in school start times.
OWENSWe're not totally sure why that was. But anecdotally, many students commented that they felt so much better getting that extra sleep in the morning, that they were motivated to get their work done and get to bed earlier as well. So this idea that they will delay bed times is not been borne out by the literature.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Aaron in Rockville, Md. Aaron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AARONGood morning, everyone. How are you guys doing today?
AARONGreat. Well, I work as an administrator for an independent private school in Aspen Hill, Md. called School For Tomorrow. In fact, I believe the head of school, Alan, called in a couple of weeks ago regarding a slightly different topic. The reason that I wanted to call in today is our school opens at 9:30 every morning, and we serve students grades five through 12. And I have to say that, you know, reading all the research that's been conducted into this, we definitely see the fruits of that labor in our school.
AARONThe fact of the matter is the students do come in significantly more refreshed and aware and able to in take information whereas in the past, earlier start times, they just do not promote best brain activity, the best learning styles and certainly not any creativity. The fact of the matter is that, you know, we have to go with what this new research is showing us as far educational methods in general, but even specifically just referring to start times, a 9:30 start time. The students are much more able to come in and assimilate information than in any other situation. Excuse me.
NNAMDIThis is music to the ears of Phyllis Payne. Is it not?
PAYNEYes it is. And I would say it's absolutely supported by every bit of the research. The experts, you know, really agree about the educational benefits. In fact, some economists at the Brookings Institute actually showed increases in academic achievement with the effects for disadvantaged students roughly twice as large as those effects for advantaged students. And so -- and at little or no cost to schools, they actually show the benefits-to-cost ratio is 9:1.
PAYNESo it may actually be worth having our giant school systems. Fairfax, Montgomery and now Howard County advocates are jumping into the issues, as well as Anne Arundel County. Start school later chapters are opening around the country. There's really a groundswell of support because parents and stakeholders know how important this is for our children. And I actually feel confident studying this for as long as I have and really sort of becoming a minor transportation expert.
PAYNEThere are more options for large districts about how to rearrange the schools and buses, which does make it more complex for us to study. But the districts - many districts have done this with no cost. Fairfax County has had two consultants come in and show us that there are no-cost and low-cost ways to rearrange the transportation that retains safe daylight pickup times for elementary school students. So this can be done, and it's a priority. We really, really need to just find the best possible way to make it happen in our big counties.
NNAMDIAaron, thank you very much for your call. Here now is Sarah in Washington, D.C. Sarah, your turn.
SARAHHi. I was in high school a long time ago, but when our high school changed from nine o'clock to 8:45, there were protests. In fact, I just kept coming late anyway. I figured that was ridiculous to come at 8:45. So there were buses then. There were students then. There were elementary schools then. What happened between the 1960s when I was in school and everybody else went to school and lots of people took buses? What changed?
NNAMDII'll ask Pat O'Neill.
SARAHWho teamed up this crazy idea of sending kids to school at such early hours?
O'NEILLWell, I have to say I'm a product of the Montgomery County public schools. It's one of my claims to fame. I'm a graduate of Walter Johnson High School. And I have to say I never rode a school bus in all my years as a student here in Montgomery Country and also when I grew up in California prior to arriving at Walter Johnson. You know, we are running magnet programs.
O'NEILLWe're running special programs. We're busing special education students across our county. You know, we had many, many very small elementary schools tucked into neighborhoods. And in the early '80s, Montgomery County, because of declining enrollment, closed about 60 schools and went to larger, more regional type of programs.
O'NEILLWe do run, you know, we do now have high school students walk two miles to school, middle school students, 1.5 miles and elementary students, one mile, and yet we still are busing over 90,000 children a day. And our system is now at 149,000 students. When we peaked, following the baby boomers, we were only at 127,000 students. We've grown 11,000 in the past five years, and we will continue to grow. Those transportation issues and demands will become only more complicated, not less.
NNAMDIKaren -- I mean, Sarah, thank you very much for your call.
SARAHSo, yes, it's simply then that that many more students since I went to BCC, in other words.
SARAHAnd just the growth of students. OK. Bye.
NNAMDIBut Phyllis would say not that we cannot handle complexity, but, Sarah, thank you very much for your call.
PAYNEWell, I would say, in fact, that with the computer programs that are available now, it is easier for us to take a look at this and to do the rearranging that had been problematic in the past.
NNAMDIGot a post on our Facebook page from Karen, who writes, "My 6-year-old gets on a bus at 6:55 a.m. to start 7:45. Special ed kids get a whammy on top of the early start." But this email we got from Trudy, Judy Owens: "My grandson is a junior in Prince William County. He's a better-than-average student, but first-period classes are a real problem. In ninth grade, he got a C in first period AP biology. In 10th grade, he got a C in first period Latin, and he has a D so far in first period history. He gets As and Bs in Latin and other sciences later in the day."
OWENSThat similar kind of findings...
NNAMDIBares out the research?
OWENSAbsolutely. And, in fact, it's not just the first-period classes that are often affected in terms of academic performance, but oftentimes, throughout the school day. So that clearly mirrors what we see in research.
NNAMDIParents in Anne Arundel County in Maryland are also lobbying for a change in school start times. You're speaking there tomorrow, Judy. What's going on in that district?
OWENSWell, I think they are at the very early stages in terms of looking at this issue. I think there are apparently a number of folks on the school board who have yet to be convinced that the science behind this, the evidence, is compelling enough to make these changes. So that's what I see as my role in trying to bring forth the evidence that we have and what the rationale for making these changes would be.
NNAMDIFrom a research standpoint, has anything changed in recent years to make the case for later start times more compelling?
OWENSWell, I think, certainly, we now have a number of studies which have actually looked before and after start changes. So it's -- they're not just co-relational. In other words, looking at schools that start later versus schools that start earlier, these are the same schools that make the change, and then we measure the outcomes.
OWENSAnd in our own experience, we saw, really astounding, across-the-board, highly statistically significant improvements in everything from attendance, tardiness levels, visits to the health center, self-reported depression, as well as decreased sleepiness ratings. Virtually every outcome we looked at was positively impacted, and that's pretty much par for the course across the board.
NNAMDIDr. Judith Owens is director of Sleep Medicine at Children's National Medical Center. She joins us in studio with Patricia O'Neill, who is a member of the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education and Phyllis Payne, co-founder of SLEEP, Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal in Fairfax County. Phyllis Payne.
PAYNEAnd I would add to that that the other data that's relatively new is the car crash studies that have been done and replicated, including one in Virginia with neighboring school districts, Virginia Beach in Chesapeake. And they -- those studies have shown a decrease in car crash rates. And that's an important safety factor, not just for the teen drivers, but for everyone else who's driving around them.
NNAMDIOn to Douglas in Arlington, Va. Douglas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGLASYeah. I think about the kids in the rural areas who get up and muck the barn at four o'clock, 4:30, five o'clock, and then go on and go to school and get their educations completed. As well, way back in the day, we used to wake up very early and deliver our morning paper routes when kids did that kind of thing.
DOUGLASWe went on to school, and we succeeded. And I think it might be interesting to take a good look at the Arlington County School system which four or five years ago changed its starting hour to get the students started later and see to what extent there's been any measurable improvement in the academic success of the student.
NNAMDICare to respond to that, Pat O'Neill?
O'NEILLWell, I think, you know, the issue about the academic success, you know, you're talking about Fairfax County and Montgomery County which are very high-achieving districts right now. That's not, though, to dismiss the quality of life. You know, anyone who's had teenagers go through the system -- and I had two -- I know that my daughters would've been much happier with a later start time. And, you know, some of the arguments against changing start time, one, was about, oh, athletics in the later afternoon...
NNAMDIWe're going to get to that.
O'NEILL...you know, I have to say, as my personal experience, both my daughters played field hockey, and my one daughter also played lacrosse. Their coach was an elementary teacher, so we did not begin practice until four o'clock. They routinely had a later practice because of the logistics of that elementary teacher being a coach, having to complete her day and then get to the high school. There is a quality of life issue with this.
O'NEILLI have to say that one of the most compelling pieces in the report in '99, though, that struck me was the impact of -- on our immigrant community, if such a change was made, that we have many students who are working to help support their families. And, in fact, on Saturday, I heard of a young man and his brother who are actually supporting themselves, and this young man works in a restaurant from 3:00 to 11:00.
O'NEILLWe've also heard of many students who do care -- provide after-school care for their younger siblings, especially in the immigrant community where many parents are working multiple jobs to provide a living for their families. Those are real concerns. You know, it is complicated to make a change. If you make a change across the board and have a later start time for some elementary school students, if you slide it all back 45 minutes to get those high school students across that eight o'clock threshold, you're putting your last tier of elementary students starting at about 10 o'clock in the morning.
O'NEILLThat's problematic. I think all of us really, you know, want to do a change to high school bell times. It's how we do it. I'm looking forward to seeing what the consultant in Fairfax County comes up with of how to actually accomplish this in a large district.
NNAMDIPhyllis Payne, Doug said, look, rural kids have been getting up early in the morning from, oh, forever, and they've somehow been managing to make it through school. What say you?
PAYNEWell, I think that the reality is many of our schools have long, you know, in the old -- good old days, the schools used to actually start at nine o'clock across the board, and it's only since the, you know, the staggering bus schedules that we've had to deal with this issue.
NNAMDIHow about the other point that Pat O'Neill addresses and that is, some people worry that if school lets out later, there's not enough time for after-school sports and other activities?
PAYNEYes. And I want to address that as -- with a particular sensitivity to she had raised immigrant populations, people who are economically struggling and...
NNAMDIWorking a 3 to 11 shift.
PAYNERight. And actually one of the things that I remember, and that drives me to work towards this, is a response to that one of the students gave to an early survey that was done at Jeb Stewart High School in Fairfax which is one of the most economically diverse high schools in Fairfax. The student wrote in the comments area on our survey, "I work with my father cleaning office buildings from 9:00 till midnight every night, and I pray for later start times every day."
PAYNESo, yes, it's important for kids to have jobs after school, but jobs -- the employers that were surveyed in Fairfax that employed children or teenagers or young adults have said that they would continue to employ young adults. Fairfax also has flexibility and allows students that need to work to leave school early to do that.
PAYNESo I think we want to focus on not every kid not every day and make sure that we are providing appropriate high school start times for the majority of the students, and the students who must work are actually even more challenged by the lack of sleep. So it's even more important for those students. So that's -- well...
DR. JUDITH OWENSI'd just like to comment about the athletic competition issue.
OWENSThere was a recent study that was published in abstract form that showed that high school athletes who got more sleep were 68 percent less likely to have sports injuries. And there certainly is a issue in terms of coordinating schedules among different schools who are competing in athletic activities but also keeping in mind that these young student athletes may perform better and be less likely to be injured during athletics if they get better sleep.
NNAMDIGot to get back to the telephones. Doug, thank you very much for your call. Like to go to Maribelle (sp?) in Severna Park, Md. Maribelle, your turn.
MARIBELLEHi there. Thank you so much for having me. I just wanted to comment. I've been working with Start School Later Inc., an organization that's been dedicated to making this a national issue. I think, most of the time, people get confused because they get confused with school start times as an issue of convenience or preference. What Start School Later maintains is that it's not a preference or desire. It's a basic individual need and a right for all students.
MARIBELLEThe sleep crunch is what's happening now because most students, especially high school students, can't go to sleep until 11, and school starts at the seven o'clock hour which requires these student to wake up in anywhere from the 5:30 to six o'clock hour. Magnet students and special needs students have to wake up even earlier to catch 5:35 a.m. buses.
MARIBELLESo the problem is, at best, these kids are going to get six hours of sleep. The schedule is engineering sleep deprivation. And so we would never question whether we would put sprinkler systems in schools. We would never question whether we should heat schools. We would never question whether there should be safety measures in schools to deter predators or unauthorized entry in schools.
MARIBELLEAnd sleep needs are a basic right, and that's what's happened. When we have something like that where we need to have additional controls in schools to -- for safety or if we have to have sprinkler systems, it just gets done. We find a way, and it gets done. And that's what we maintain at startschoollater.net is that this is a need that has to be done.
MARIBELLEWe don't need to determine this is what should be done, but when.
NNAMDIMaribelle makes the argument that students have this as a right. We got a tweet from Tara, who says, "The need to start school later is a matter of public health, not a negotiable school budget item. The evidence is irrefutable." Judy, talk about the physical and mental health implications of not getting enough sleep. What's the risk of, say, depression among sleep-deprived teens?
OWENSWell, certainly we know that insufficient sleep is closely linked to increased problems with mood regulation and depression, as well as expressions of suicidal thoughts. And obviously because depression is such an important issue in the adolescent population, this is something that we have to take very seriously. Drowsy driving, increase in rates of car crashes and car accidents related to sleep loss is an extremely important public health issue.
OWENSWe know that students who use caffeine and other stimulants to combat the effects of sleep loss may be at increased risk for use of other kinds of illicit substances later on. And the link between insufficient sleep and obesity as a public health risk is something that we have to take extremely seriously.
NNAMDIMaribelle, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. If you've called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are all busy, go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Would your child do better in school if the morning bell were later? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're asking the question should high school start later, talking with Dr. Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center. Phyllis Payne is co-founder of SLEEP, Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal in Fairfax County. And Patricia O'Neill is a member of the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education. You can call us, 800-433-8850. Judy Owens, it's my understanding that you got into this field of sleep and school performance because you first conducted a study for your daughter's school.
OWENSThat's correct, Kojo. My daughter was a student at an independent school in Rhode Island, and the headmaster made the decision to delay the school's start time by 30 minutes, from 8:00 to 8:30. And the faculty was almost uniformly against this. They felt...
OWENSYes, exactly. And they felt that, first of all, half an hour was not going to make a difference and that it was going to disrupt the academic schedule. So the headmaster asked me to get involved to prevent -- to present some of the rationale for making this change, which I did, but I also suggested that we study it. So we looked at before and after the start change, which was going to be a trimester experiment, and across the board found improvements in every possible parameter we looked at in terms of student satisfaction with their sleep, the amount of sleep that they were getting.
OWENSThey averaged 45 minutes more per day. They were less likely to fall asleep in class, doing homework, fewer visits to the health center. And after this, there was not a single person on campus who wanted to go back to the eight o'clock start time.
NNAMDIHere is Lisa in Annandale, Va. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAThank you. First, it seems to me that these bus schedules are totally backwards. Any parent should know that you know the younger children are the ones that wake up earlier. So I'm still baffled why this is, you know, still a fight in Fairfax County and we haven't resolved it yet. But the biggest problem for me is I just feel this is almost a parental interference and a home interference issue. I mean, I have a daughter who naps almost every day, and I can't wake her up. You know, I try to tell her, well, if you're going to take a nap, just take, you know, a short nap, you know.
LISAIt's terrible that she can't sleep at bedtime. And I have a son who I literally have to medicate at night, with, you know, supervision from my doctor, in order for him to get, you know, somewhere close to the sleep that they might need. I put them both to bed at 9:00, and that's still too late to get the nine hours of sleep because they have to get up at 5:30. Does anyone or do people know if other parents are experiencing these same problems?
NNAMDII'm pretty sure they are because we got an email from Jiddu, (sp?) who says, "Until the schedule changes are realized for high school students, what can parents do now to help their kids deal with the early start time?" Any suggestions at all?
OWENSWell, one thing that they probably should not do is to sleep in later on weekends. You know, on the face of it, that sounds like a reasonable solution, but it really doesn't help their performance during the week while they're not getting adequate sleep. In addition, it further exacerbates the circadian phase shift so that, come Sunday night, there's no way they can get to bed at a reasonable hour in order to get up on Monday morning.
OWENSAnd most of these kids are functioning in a permanent state of jet lag. It's like flying from Washington to L.A. and back every weekend, with their shifts in sleep and wake times. And think about how you feel when you have jet lag. It's not a good way to perform.
NNAMDILisa, thank you very much for your call. Pat O'Neill, you made the point earlier that in Montgomery and Arlington County Public Schools -- I'm sorry, Montgomery and Fairfax County Public Schools, you're already talking about public schools that are among the best in the country. So I guess the problem for you and others is looking for evidence that getting more sleep actually boosts academic outcomes like test scores and graduation rates.
O'NEILLI don't know that we will see that at present. I mean, you know, I would like to think that if you made this bell time change that suddenly your SAT scores are going to jump, you know, tremendously. Right now, both districts are performing very well with the SAT scores, among the tops with AP scores, highest graduation rates.
O'NEILLI, you know, I do understand the research that reflects it, you know, the health implications. And, you know, I, as a parent, you know, have a -- both my children are graduated, but I believe it was a matter of quality of life, you know? Particularly I have one night owl daughter, and, you know, it was a struggle getting her up in the morning.
O'NEILLYou know, whether you will see an evidence of, you know, higher graduation rates, you're already, you know, Montgomery County had the highest graduation rates for a large district in the country. And one of the highest graduation rates particularly for African-American and Latino students -- that's not to say that we don't have room to go with -- in, you know, you want to continuously improve -- I think it's more of a health issue and the quality of life.
NNAMDIJudy Owens, how solid is the evidence that getting more sleep actually boosts academic outcomes, like test scores, graduation rates?
OWENSWell, I think we have increasing evidence that, as Phyllis mentioned earlier, that particularly disadvantaged students may benefit in terms of academic performance. But I would also like to point out that despite the fact that many of these kids are performing well in school, the toll that it takes on them is still profound. For example, I hear students all the time say, you know, it takes me five or six hours to do my homework. So I can't possibly get to sleep before midnight or 1 a.m.
OWENSWell, one of the things that happens when people are sleep deprived is they become less efficient in completing cognitive tasks. So my suspicion is that it may take them five hours to do three hours worth of homework. And so the amount of effort that it takes to complete their schoolwork is certainly very likely to be significantly greater if they have this chronic sleep deprivation.
NNAMDILisa in Springfield, Va. Hi, Lisa.
LISAOh, hi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.
LISAYeah. I feel like I have something to add that, you know, was maybe touched on a little bit by one of the last callers. But that's the effect that this has on the families of, you know, these kids who have to get up 5:30 or six o'clock every morning. My son suffered through this for six years, but his family suffered right along with him. We pretty much just lost him for those six years. And that time can never be gotten back.
LISAAnd I'm really angry about that.
PAYNEWell, I couldn't have more sympathy for the caller. I know my husband and I struggled with it. And we drove our children to get them the extra 30 minutes of sleep that we could by driving instead of taking our 6:20 bus. And we literally couldn't even make it through an entire week ourselves. We had to trade off in midweek so that he would drive for three days, and I would drive for two days.
PAYNEAnd then the next week, I would drive for three days, and he would drive for two days 'cause we were all so cranky and angry by the end of the week. It was literally every single morning waking up and thinking, when is the school board going to make this change?
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Lisa. Paul in Arlington, Va. Your turn, Paul.
PAULHi. I feel frustrated by this discussion in a way that I felt frustrated for years by various discussions of circadian rhythm, school related and otherwise. And in particular, I'm bothered by the unsupported claim or the unexplained claim that high school kids can't get to bed before 11. The thing is if we were talking about a primitive society where there was little or no artificial light and little or no -- little or nothing in the way of window coverings, then -- and people spent most of their time outdoors, then I could see that.
PAULBut the fact is our schedules or our perception of light in the modern world is dominated by, as I said, window coverings and artificial light, and it often seems to me that the proponents of plans, like the Start School Later plan, are, in effect, saying that the sun is emanating these mysterious, invisible rays that penetrate through walls and then penetrate through our skulls behind those walls and control our brains.
PAULAnd that seems like something a psychotic would believe, not a sane person. And the one question I'd ask would be, is it possible that the real reason kids can't get to bed before 11:00 is because their parents are artificially prolonging the evening using artificial light and television?
PAYNECan I respond to that? This is Phyllis. And I just want to say that there is actually even research about primates, OK, so you can't tell me that the chimps and the gorillas are sitting there watching television and that that is what is keeping them up. I'm very tired of people blaming, you know, parents and students who are basically, I think, victims in this case where the schedule is like shift work for them.
PAYNEYou know, one of the experts, Dr. Dement, said it's like asking a child to go to sleep at 8:30 and be, you know, be in bed and asleep by 8:30, which is what is required for them to get the nine hours. It's like asking them to jump 10 feet in the air. They physically cannot do it. So, you know, yes, one individual working really hard to change their own circadian rhythm might eventually be able to do that by the means you're describing, the bright light exposure, controlling light and dark exposure.
NNAMDIBut it's not going to become a new universe.
PAYNESo -- yeah, faking out the brain. But that's, you know, this is a public health issue, and public health decisions are made on what's best for society.
NNAMDIThose of us who grew up in previous eras might have some skepticism about the science we're discussing here, Judy Owens.
OWENSYes. I would just like to make the comment that the studies that this information were based on were very carefully controlled experimental studies in which kids' sleep patterns were monitored in an environment where there was no clocks available. There was no light and dark cycles. They were not exposed to any electronics.
OWENSAnd what was measured was a substance called melatonin, which is a hormone that your body produces that is a marker for circadian rhythms. So these were biologically, extremely well-controlled experiments that really eliminated a lot of the confounders that the caller mentioned in terms of light exposure. So, again, the science is irrefutable.
NNAMDITo which you say what, Paul?
PAULI was going to say, again, could one of the guests explain how our brains are controlled by the sun when we so rarely see them, of course, of our ordinary lives?
NNAMDII think that might be a subject for another discussion. But, Judy, how would you compare the sleep patterns of today's students to those of past decades?
OWENSWell, certainly, there is evidence to suggest that over time, last 50 or 60 years, the children of all ages, and adults for that matter as well, are getting significantly less sleep. And so I would really like to also say that all those other confounding priorities for sleep, electronics, texting -- a lot of kids sleep with their cellphones on their bed now -- there are all kinds of other issues that also impact on this. And we have to educate students about the importance of personal responsibility.
NNAMDIPat O'Neill, we're running out of time very quickly, but talk briefly about the politics of changing start times, the process and offer your prediction for whether Montgomery County schools will decide to move start times.
O'NEILLI think there is a strong interest in changing the start times. The devil really is in the details and a change this significant to the high school impacts people at all levels. And so the discussion has to be with people throughout the community. The task force that's being set up will be through our Chief Operating Officer Larry Bowers. They will consult the medical research and take that 1999 report and the subsequent reports options. Use this as starting points, update the information to current information and get input from a wide range of stakeholders and put it out for public comment.
NNAMDIPatricia O'Neill is a member of the Montgomery County's Public Schools Board of Education. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIPhyllis Payne is co-founder of SLEEP, Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal, in Fairfax County. Phyllis Payne, thank you for joining us.
PAYNEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Dr. Judith Owens is director of Sleep Medicine at Children's National Medical Center. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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