After Cherry Hill High Schools moved their start times to 7:30 am – matching most SJ high schools – some parents and teens are wondering just how much harm sleep deprivation causes.

On some mornings, Cherry Hill High School East senior Max Faye has AP psychology first period. That’s not so good, he says. Since East pushed back its start time 30 minutes – to 7:30 am – Faye says those early classes are sometimes just a blur.

“I’ve even noticed a difference in productivity in the music department,” says the 17-year-old aspiring musician, who relies on coffee to get him through the first hours of the day. “We rehearse, but we get nothing done that early. We’re all just dead tired at 7:30 in the morning.”

Begrudgingly, Faye and his peers have had to accept 7:30 am as the new normal. In September, the long-held 8 am start time was changed to lengthen the academic day and match the start time of the vast majority of schools in South Jersey.

Still, many students and parents are unhappy with the change. They cite a well-established body of research and a growing national movement as reasons to start the school day later. However, school officials say the change came after careful study and opportunities for public input. The 2013-2014 school year was a golden opportunity to make the change as teachers and other bargaining units agreed to the earlier start time when negotiating their current contracts last year. Cherry Hill Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Reusche has pledged to monitor how both the earlier start and longer day affect academic performance and students’ well-being.

“I never expected students to sit down and say this was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made,” says Reusche. “Overall, we are pleased that people are moving forward, and I am pleased with the maturity of students who have shared the concerns they had. It has been a learning opportunity for them.”

In the meantime, however, students continue to criticize the change.

Just ask Lydia George-Koku, a student government association (SGA) representative at Cherry Hill East. She says students are chronically tired, nodding off in class and no longer able to get academic help that many teachers previously offered before the first bell.

“As one student said to me, ‘Sure, we can get used to anything, but at what cost?’” says George-Koku, a senior who also serves as SGA’s liaison to the Cherry Hill Board of Education. “How effective is an extra half hour of time really going to be if it’s hurting us physically?”

School start times vary from district to district. They are set by local entities, typically school boards, and range locally from 7:10 am at Pennsauken High School to 9:03 am at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden. Most high schools in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties start around 7:40 am.

According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), teens on average need nine and one-quarter hours of sleep each night to function best. The NSF stresses that puberty causes changes in sleep patterns, which translates to excessive sleepiness in adolescents no matter how much they sleep. Also, hormonal teens will naturally have trouble falling asleep, even when they are exhausted. So if the biological make-up of your high school student is keeping him awake until 11 pm or later, getting up to make a 7:30 am class will most likely leave him sleep deprived. A national grassroots movement to push high school start times to a later hour is gaining ground but has yet to take hold in South Jersey.

“The stereotypical teenager going to bed late and not being able to get up for school is not just a stereotype, it has a biological basis,” says Charlotte Markey, a psychology professor at Rutgers-Camden. “If they are going to be at school at 7:30 am, that means they need to get in bed by 9:30 pm (waking by 6:30 am). That’s really not going to happen – especially if they play sports or are involved in other activities and don’t get home until 6 pm.”

Sleep deprivation is not isolated to Cherry Hill high schools. At Cherokee Regional High School in Marlton, where the day starts at 7:30 am, senior Jesse Ackerman says on typical mornings he feels anxious just thinking about the long day ahead of him. With three AP courses, college applications due and his involvement in multiple clubs, there is little down time and certainly no ability to get a good night’s sleep.

“By the time I get things accomplished at night, I can’t help but go to bed at 12,” says Ackerman, 17.

Parents are frustrated too. Ronit Boyd, a Voorhees mother of four whose oldest children are freshmen at Eastern High School in Voorhees, says although she and her children agreed on a 10 pm bedtime on school nights, it’s rarely possible for her 14-year-old twins to go to bed that early.

“At 10 pm, they would love to go to bed, but they’re still up doing homework,” says Boyd. “The extra-curriculars are required for college, so it’s not like I can say not to do them. And it’s not like they have time for a social life.”

A recent NSF poll found that 80 percent of adolescents in the United States get far less than the recommended hours of sleep on school nights. Meanwhile, 50 percent of students in grades 9-12 start school before 8 am, according to a 2013 survey of parents by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. Nearly one in five starts before 7:30 am, according to the report.

Researchers say these sleepy students are at greater risk for adverse consequences associated with inadequate sleep, including impairments in mood, attention, memory, behavioral control and quality of life, and increased obesity levels. Studies show sleep-deprived teens are also at greater risk of being in automobile accidents, the leading cause of death among teenagers.

Inadequate sleep can also take a toll on academic performance. Multiple studies have shown an association between decreased sleep duration and lower academic achievement at the middle school, high school and college levels, as well as a decreased motivation to learn.

In recent years, a scattering of school districts throughout the country have changed to later start times, based on research findings that puberty resets teens’ internal clocks. And a national petition promoting legislation that would prevent high schools from starting before 8 am, started by a group called Start School Later, has drawn support from thousands nationwide.

Several studies of school districts that have switched from early to late start times showed improved attendance, increases in continuous enrollment, less tardiness and fewer trips to nurses’ offices. In one study of Minnesota school districts that instituted a later start time in the 1990s, students gained, on average, one hour of sleep per night. Students reported they ate breakfast more frequently and were able to complete more of their homework during school hours because they were more alert during the day.

However, there are arguments for the status quo. The big one is transportation, as most school districts stagger start times of elementary, middle and high schools to utilize buses efficiently. Sports and childcare are also factors. However, sleep advocates point out that these issues were overcome in the school districts that made the switch.

As late as the 1950s and ’60s, most U.S. high schools started the school day between 8:30 and 9 am, says Mary Carskadon, a sleep expert and national advocate of later start times. However, the tide turned during the 1970s’ energy crisis as schools looked for ways to save money.

“Schools were removing light bulbs from classrooms to save money and started having tiered bus schedules to minimize that expense,” says Carskadon, a professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at the Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, R.I. “This led to graduated school schedules for high schools, middle schools and grammar schools.”

In more recent years, earlier start times have been implemented to save money in crisis situations. In May of 2012, Pittsburgh public schools considered starting high school 30 or 60 minutes earlier (7:06 or 7:36 am) to shave $1.2 million from their budget, according to press accounts.

For other districts, earlier start times are the result of changing requirements by states or local school boards to increase the number of hours of instruction, as is the case in Cherry Hill, Carskadon notes.

“Whatever pedagogical gains they’re expecting to get from the change – from the data and evidence I know – I don’t think they’re going to see the results they want,” Carskadon adds. “Students need to sleep, and feel well and happy to learn. They need to engage in the learning process.”

For Cherry Hill officials, the impetus for the earlier start was the opportunity to lengthen the school day. Cherry Hill School Board President Kathy Judge says the board and administration have wanted to switch to a longer day since the 2008-2009 school year. Members of a Cherry Hill high school task force visited several school districts throughout New Jersey in 2010 and quickly realized Cherry Hill’s day, at 6 hours and 30 minutes, was shorter than most comparable school districts, and even a full 23 minutes shorter than the state average.

“Extending the school day,” Judge says, “would allow for more instructional time for our students.”

While officials considered adding the time to the end of the school day, they concluded that the 7:30 am start time made the most sense. They considered the impact on students’ after-school jobs and extracurricular activities, noting that student-athletes already miss about 30 minutes of class time for away games and meets. They also recognized that adding time at the end of the day would increase transportation costs and put buses on the road during rush hour.

Although it’s too soon to gauge the impact the increased instructional time and the earlier start will make on student performance, the district is watching closely, says Barbara Wilson, district spokeswoman. So far, she says, there has not been a significant impact on tardiness, absenteeism or even the sale of coffee, which is sold to both students and educators at school. It’s also not clear if students are falling asleep in their classes any more than in prior years when school started at 8 am, she adds.

As far as extra help, teachers were never under a contractual obligation to offer help in the morning. Some are still available early and others are offering it at other times, Wilson says.

Both Reusche and Judge say they have fielded a handful of calls and emails from parents who have questioned or disapproved of the earlier start. Students have been more vocal. A Facebook group called “Cherry Hill Students Against A Longer School Day” has 409 likes, but has not been active since the 2012-13 school year.

Student government representatives at both Cherry Hill East and Cherry Hill West have brought student concerns to public school board meetings since school opened. In November, Reusche met with students on this issue and others. She says the students offered thoughtful arguments as well as alternative plans, such as splitting the extra 30 minutes between the start and end of the day, thus starting the day at 7:45 am and ending at 2:45 pm. They understood and accepted that the hours couldn’t be changed mid-year due to contractual issues, she adds.

Student Lydia George-Koku, the SGA representative at East, says her peers are resigned to the change for this year.

“We would prefer school to open at 8 am,” she says. “Sleep deprivation is still an issue, but many students are attempting to get used to the new schedule. We’re optimistic we can win back the extra 15 minutes, if not for us, for future students.”

February 2014
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