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Originally published Wednesday, September 4, 2013 at 8:39 PM

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Education chief backs idea of later start to school day for teens

A later start to the school day could help teenagers get the most from their classroom time, and local districts should consider delaying the first bell, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday.

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WASHINGTON — A later start to the school day could help teenagers get the most from their classroom time, and local districts should consider delaying the first bell, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday.

School districts would still be free to set their own start times, Duncan insisted in a broadcast interview, but he pointed to research that backs up his comments that rested students are ready students. Duncan said he would not be telling local school leaders when their first bells should ring and said it was up to local leaders to make the decisions.

“There’s lots of research and common sense that lots of teens struggle to get up ... to get on the bus,” said Duncan, the former chief of Chicago Public Schools.

The main reason?

“Teen brains have a different biology,” said Kyla Wahlstrom, director at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement.

For the last 17 years, Wahlstrom has studied teenagers’ sleep cycles, brains and learning.

She has concluded that schools that want ready students must have students arrive rested. Absenteeism, tardiness, depression, obesity, dropout rates and even auto accidents all decline when students get a good night of sleep.

Schools are starting to take notice. Take, for instance, Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools.

Most medical professionals recommend between 8.5 and 9.5 hours of sleep for students. The Fairfax district surveyed students in grades 8, 10 and 12 and found two-thirds of them were sleeping seven hours or less each school night. Among high school seniors, 84 percent routinely slept less than seven hours each night during the 2011 survey.

That prompted the school district, the 11th largest in the country, to partner with the Children’s National Medical Center’s Division of Sleep Medicine to study student’s nighttime habits this year and to consider pushing its start time to 8 a.m. or later in coming years.

Bus schedules have been a driving factor in recent decades for when schools start their days, as are after-school jobs for teenagers, extracurricular activities and interscholastic sports.

The challenge of transporting students to these activities — as well as classes — often is cited as a reason high school days begin at dawn and end midafternoon.

“So often, we design school systems that work for adults and not for kids,” Duncan told NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show.”

Research backs up Duncan’s worries about student sleep patterns and academic achievement.

“Children who sleep poorly are doing more poorly on academic performance,” said Joseph Buckhalt, a distinguished professor at Auburn University’s College of Education.

He has been tracking sleeping patterns of 250 children as well as their IQ tests, performance on standardized tests, their grades and behavior. His findings suggest sleep is just as important to student achievement as diet and exercise.

“All the data that we’ve seen on sleep shows that children, especially teenagers, are sleeping less,” he said. “If you don’t sleep well, you don’t think very well.”

Part of the lack of sleep is biological as teenagers go through puberty, Buckhalt said. But after school programs such as sports or clubs, as well as increased pressure for students to perform well academically, keep them up later than is prudent.

Add in caffeine, nonstop social interactions through text messages and Facebook and sometimes less-than-ideal home environments, and students have steep challenges.

For students from less affluent families, the effects can be compounded, Buckhalt found.

“Fifty years ago we learned that hungry kids don’t do well in school. Now we know that sleepy children don’t do well in school,” Buckhalt said. “Now we have to do something about it.”

Patte Barth, director for the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association, has not taken a position on the ideal time to start schools, but Barth said Duncan is correct.

“Teenagers are much more alert later in the day rather than earlier,” she said.

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