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Western Pa. schools reluctant to delay start times for teens

Ben Schmitt
| Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015, 11:01 p.m.

If national health experts had their way, school districts across the country would wake up and let teenage students sleep longer.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study has reignited debate about school start times, saying middle and high schools' early starts are hazardous to teens' health.

Essentially, students lose if they don't properly snooze, experts say.

Teens typically stay up long past 10 p.m., and they need at least 8 12 hours of sleep, the research shows. However, fewer than one in five public middle and high schools adhere to a recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics to push back start times to at least 8:30 a.m.

High schools in the Pittsburgh region are no exception — some ring the first bell as early as 7:20 a.m.

“Telling a young person to go to bed at 9 or 9:30 at night, they simply cannot do it,” said Dr. Elizabeth Miller, chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. “What happens with early adolescents is that their sleep-wake rhythms shift so that there is a tendency to stay up later and sleep later.”

Teens who skimp on sleep are more likely to be overweight or depressed and are more likely to suffer academically and dabble in tobacco, alcohol or other drugs, according to the study.

Alan Johnson, superintendent of Woodland Hills School District, has partnered with Children's to study the issue. The district plans to recruit a small group of students whose parents would allow them to start school later. Researchers will collect and monitor data on the students such as their attendance, behavior and academic performance.

“If it does produce the kind of results that the research predicts, then we need to have a very serious discussion about this,” Johnson said. “The problem now is that so many things are keyed to a school's start and stop times that no one school can buck the tide because either we all change or none of us changes.”

Cameron Key, 17, who is entering his senior year at Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts school, said he doesn't buy the need for a change. CAPA's high school students start at 7:45 a.m.; their counterparts in other Pittsburgh Public Schools start even earlier.

“I run fine off six hours of sleep,” Key said. “Are there times when I wake up and complain about the early start time? Sure. But that's just me making excuses. We won't be sleeping in when we grow up and get jobs.”

CAPA principal Melissa Pearlman said administrators must work within the school schedule, emphasize the importance of a good night's sleep, and encourage students to unplug from electronic devices and social media to avoid overstimulation at bedtime.

Chris Darsie, a guidance counselor in Penn Hills High School, doesn't discount the findings. But he cited other factors, including problems associated with changing bus schedules and the trickiness of scheduling after-school activities, especially athletics, as barriers to later school days. For example, he said, bus drivers in the Penn Hills School District have multiple bus runs each day — high school routes followed by routes for younger children whose school days begin later.

“Who is better off standing on a corner waiting for a bus on a dark winter morning — an elementary school kid or a high school-age student?” he asked.

Ebony Pugh, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Public Schools, agreed that school bus routes play a huge role in establishing start times.

“I'm not devaluing this study,” she said. “But there are also a variety of issues. For example, we have many high school students who get home before their younger siblings to provide home care until their parents get home from work.”

In Chartiers Valley School District, high school students start at 7:35 a.m. and middle schoolers begin at 8:08 a.m.

Yvonne Hawkins, assistant superintendent for the district, said she has received complaints throughout the years about students being deprived of sleep.

“It's a complex issue,” Hawkins said. “Who can argue the fact that you should get X amount of sleep to be healthy? I don't know the answer, but I think it's something that's worth taking a continuous look at.”

Joseph Onomastico of Collier, whose son Anthony, 16, plays for Chartiers Valley High School's varsity football team, said he'd like the district to take the study seriously.

“There's a lot of pressure on these kids already,” Onomastico said. “You can see when they don't get enough sleep, that it affects them.”

Ben Schmitt is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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