The White Plains Middle School eighth-grader, who said he wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. to get to school before classes start at 7:20 a.m., only laughs when he hears that’s the amount of sleep health experts recommend for teenagers every night.
“Maybe on the weekends,” Sotelo said Friday morning before going to his first class. “Maybe.”
Sotelo said an extra hour every morning would probably be helpful. And he’s not alone in feeling that way. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he’d like to see more school districts challenge the status quo of schools starting classes as early as 7 a.m. His reasoning, he said, is pure health. Teenagers need more sleep.
“The science is crystal clear,” said Terra Ziporyn Snider, executive director and co-founder of Start School Later, a group that advocates for pushing back school start times. “No one really argues the science of this, but it’s a convenience thing, ingrained in culture now. This is when school starts.”
Snider said school start times started getting earlier and earlier in the 1960s, when school districts began busing in students. To cut costs, school districts used the same buses for elementary, middle and high schools and began staggering start times.
In rural communities with lots of space and few residents, just getting to school can take some time.
“We have small schools in very large districts,” said Joe Dyar, superintendent of Calhoun County Schools. “Sometimes these kids are getting on the bus at 6 a.m. and have an hour commute to school.”
Dyar said for a long time the prevailing thought among school administrators was minds tended to be more active early in the morning, which is why so many schools began starting earlier. By then, the trend of getting to school typically before the average business workday was set in stone.
“But now the research indicates that teenagers need a lot more sleep,” Dyar said. “It’s a puzzle we’re trying to figure out.”
And while P.J. Sotelo said the idea of an extra hour of sleep every morning would help him keep his eyes open throughout the day, his teachers aren’t so sure.
“A lot of the kids like to brag about how late they stay up,” said Leigh Anne Hill, a science teacher at White Plains Middle School. “I think if you push back school an hour, they’ll just stay up another hour.”
White Plains social studies teacher Michael Merriman said no matter when you schedule the start of school, it’s not going to alter the amount of hours kids stay awake.
“I worked at a school with a 7:45 start time, and there was no difference,” said Merriman. “As much as these kids have going on, with athletics and after-school activities, they have very busy days. That’s not going to change.”
Snider said there are a lot of myths about after-school activities eroding because of later school start times, while the few success stories of districts delaying when classes begin seem to have the opposite effect.
“Athletes are more injury-prone if they’re tired and not getting enough sleep,” Snider said. “Successful athletic programs are built on healthy kids.”
And that’s what starting school later movement is all about, Snider said: student health.
“It’s like removing asbestos from schools or turning the heat on in the winter if the school is in Wisconsin,” Snider said. “There are just certain things you don’t question.”
Snider said Start School Later advocates for middle and high schools to start the day no earlier than 8:30 a.m. That would put students in school at a reasonable hour, she said, and still allow plenty of time in the afternoon for after school activities, homework, and socializing.
“Going to bed at 8 p.m. isn’t realistic for kids,” Snider said. “Not scientifically, and not even culturally.”
White Plains Middle School Principal Courtney Wilburn said while starting classes later in the day would help teachers cut back on activities designed to wake students up and keep them engaged, it would also require a major overhaul in how day-to-day operations are structured.
But, she said, if it’s beneficial for student health, she’s open to the idea.
“I think like a lot of things it would be a big change at first with a lot of growing pains,” Wilburn said. “But eventually, we’d wonder how the heck we ever went to school at seven in the morning.”
Staff Writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.