Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Students deprived of sleep

Tagging along like a team of ducklings, a group of neighborhood elementary school kids follows Beth Mahony home from Heron School in North Natomas as part of the “Walking School Bus” program on Aug. 31, 2015. The yearlong walk-and-bike-to-school program is sponsored by the North Natomas Transportation Management Association. Pediatricians and other medical authorities say children are being deprived of sleep by early school start times.
Tagging along like a team of ducklings, a group of neighborhood elementary school kids follows Beth Mahony home from Heron School in North Natomas as part of the “Walking School Bus” program on Aug. 31, 2015. The yearlong walk-and-bike-to-school program is sponsored by the North Natomas Transportation Management Association. Pediatricians and other medical authorities say children are being deprived of sleep by early school start times. lsterling@sacbee.com

There’s a simple step we could – and should – take that would cost nothing, but would make children healthier and increase their school attendance and academic achievement.

It sounds too good to be true, but the American Academy of Pediatrics says starting classes later would better match kids’ natural circadian rhythms.

Those kids who trudge to school like zombies as early as 7 a.m. have brains and bodies that yearn for the sleep that would better prepare them for learning.

Couldn’t they have just gone to bed earlier? The academy, in its report on the issue, said those same natural rhythms make it very difficult for children, especially older children, to fall asleep before 11 p.m.

Instead of eight-plus hours of needed rest, they may be getting as little as six, and that’s just not enough.

The pediatricians’ report and a documentary on the National Geographic television channel entitled “Sleepless in America” have generated an organized national movement. This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weighed in, labeling adolescent sleep deprivation a public health concern and advocating later school start times.

Advocates want to push the onset of classes, now averaging 7:59 a.m. according to the National Center for Education Statistics, up to at least 8:30.

At least one school district in 44 states has made the change, according to the national campaign for change, Start Schools Later. They include seven in California, the latest being Davis Joint Unified School District, whose board has approved changing to an 8:30 a.m. start for junior high and high schools beginning in 2017.

So why don’t more districts respond to the overwhelming evidence that later start times would benefit children’s health and educations?

It’s another illustration of the sad fact that while schools are supposed to benefit kids, they’re operated by and for adults.

Joy Wake is active in the High School Parent Engagement Group in suburban Sacramento’s San Juan Unified School District, which has been trying to get later class starting times.

“They’re going to bring it before the board in the spring,” Wake said Monday after reading about the Davis decision.

However, she and her colleagues in the parent group face what she calls a “highly unusual” hurdle.

San Juan Unified’s union contract gives teachers the power to set start times, so any change would have to be negotiated.

Wake says the major objections to change come from those in high school athletics, who say ending classes later in the day would interfere with practice times and other aspects of their programs.

Obviously, changing the beginning of classes would require adjustments by faculties, administrators and parents. Some of the latter clearly like early classes to get their kids out of the house so they can get to their jobs.

But, as Wake points out, there is no starting time that will satisfy everyone’s personal agenda, so the only rational basis for setting the time is what’s best for the kids and the overwhelming evidence is that starting no earlier than 8:30 makes their lives better.

If local school officials won’t make the change, perhaps the Legislature should step in. The state already specifies how many days and hours schooling should occur, so setting a minimum start time would not be a stretch.

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