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Tired teens robbed of a fair shot

| Tuesday, May 1, 2012, 6:03 p.m.

Pushing back the start time to 7:10 a.m. for high school students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools is a terrible decision.

Research shows that during teenage years, the timing of hormones circulating in the brain shifts, causing teens to fall asleep later and wake up later. This "delayed sleep phase shift" means that the most common school day start time of 8 a.m. already has most teens sleep-deprived.

Research clearly shows that sleep deprivation in teens leads to poorer cognitive function along with less control over emotions and behavior. This means worse academic performance and more emotional problems, such as depression and anxiety, along with more behavior problems and substance abuse in our high schools. It also means more motor vehicle accidents when teens get behind the wheel. Each of these consequences is carefully documented on a University of Minnesota research website (cehd.umn.edu/research/highlights/Sleep).

And guess what? A 2005 study conducted at Northwestern University showed that teens are least alert in the early morning and most alert, learning at their best, during the afternoon. So the proposed change for Pittsburgh Public high schools, starting and ending the school day an hour earlier, sacrifices an hour of productive afternoon learning for an hour during which minimal learning will occur or be retained.

A University of Minnesota study has documented the positive changes experienced by 3,000 Minnesota high school students when their start times were later (see website cited above). A Sept. 26, 2011, New York Times op-ed by Brown University's renowned adolescent sleep researcher Mary Carskadon decries the terrible consequences of early high school start times (nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/09/26/should-the-school-day-be-longer/let-students-sleep).

We're not speaking on behalf of teachers, but we can't imagine they're happy about the prospect of driving to school in the dark and we can only wonder how they will maintain their ability to effectively teach 7 a.m. classes full of grouchy teens, day after day, month after month.

This proposed solution to help accommodate budget reductions may be an easy fix, but it is accompanied by terrible consequences. The struggling Pittsburgh Public Schools serves so many underperforming students that requiring them to start classes by 7:10 a.m. is one more burden or handicap that can only result in more failures.

What to do about the critical budget savings that the start time rollback would realize?

We've heard several potential solutions bandied about. For example, why not provide transportation only to students whose families say they really need it? Many students are driven or walk to school yet receive monthly bus passes that go unused. If the district wants to change from PAT buses to school buses that make multiple rounds of pickups and drop-offs, why not stagger high school start times between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.? If the district's transportation issues dictate that some schools begin at 7 a.m., why not designate some elementary schools for this time rather than high schools? Research shows that, unlike teens, younger children can adapt to earlier wake-up times with earlier bedtimes.

Our guess is that if Pittsburgh Public Schools reached out to the community, it would find a whole bunch of smart, creative people willing to donate their time to generate ideas that would result in students traveling to school in the light, arriving at a time later than 7:10 a.m. and, most important, arriving more alert and ready to learn.

Meryl Butters, a neuropsychologist and researcher, and Martica Hall, a sleep researcher, are associate professors of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

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