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Student Sleep Issue Keeps Resurfacing, Survey Shows

While the idea stalled in a school board session two years ago, a new survey shows that many people still want later start times.

Education reform advocates applauded the early results of a Fairfax County Public Schools online survey in which respondents overwhelmingly supported a later starting time for the county’s 25 high schools.

The last week, invited residents to take part in an online discussion of the school system's priorities. As of Friday, the most popular topic by far was the issue of school bell schedules, with over 2,000 votes (in at least three separate threads) . The next most popular thread, with over 500 votes, proposed restoring and adding honors classes to the curriculum. It is the first time that the county has conducted such a survey. 

Phyllis Payne, co-founder of the Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP) organization, said she wasn’t surprised by the survey results. She pointed to a county health youth survey from last year that showed 90 percent of county high school students weren’t getting enough sleep. 

“I have always believed that there is huge support for this in the community,” Payne said. “The later start times are appropriate for students and they need it. Right now, we have a system in place that runs counter to the best interest of the kids.” 

District high schools start at 7:20 a.m., which means than many students leave their front doors before 5:45 a.m. Schools around the country, including those in Loudoun County, have adopted the later times, which is what SLEEP has endorsed since 2004. Over the past year, the issue has around the county.

In 2009, the board rejected the issue, citing costs and logistical complications in making all 5,000 bus routes work. There were also questions about whether pushing the times back would hurt after-school activities like high school sports. 

However, Payne noted that the board rejected a SLEEP plan which showed shifting to a later starting time for the high schools was both viable and budget-neutral. 

“If this was done properly, this change should save money,” Payne said. “What we have now actually costs money. In reality, we are paying for student remediation that would not be necessary if we didn’t have all those sleepy students.”

Paul Regnier, schools spokesman, said there was no timeline for implementing the suggestions the district has received. The online discussion is meant to be an open and ongoing dialogue with the community, he said. 

“If we come up with good ideas, the superintendent will be taking them to school board,” Regnier said. “We are looking way ahead and for outside-the-box thinking of how to best prepare our kids for the future.”

Kathy Smith, the Sully District’s representative to the school board, said she viewed the online discussion as a good starting point in an evolving dialogue to find ways to improve the district’s schools.

“It’s always useful to get the input of the public,” Smith said. “What we what to do is have a richer dialogue with the community and business leaders on how to do a better job educating our children in the future." 

As for the starting time issue, she said she doesn’t expect the board to take it up immediately.

“Nothing is going to happen right now,” Smith said. “But, it’s not an issue that’s going to go away.”

Should school start later in the day? Or should times stay the same?

Jennifer Souther August 13, 2011 at 12:23 AM
The concern that I have an always have, even when I was still a student at Robinson, is that if the start time was changed to later, the school day would start later, and all after school activities would start and finish later. Add homework in there, and ambitious students would end up just staying up even later and not getting any more sleep than before at all. The only students who would benefit from this are ones who are how I was when I was in high school (there's a reason why I went to NOVA before transferring to Mason) - apathetic, don't do after school activities, don't do much homework until you NEED it to pass... The ones who don't care. I think that a later start time would only be worth it if it somehow inspired these apathetic students to apply themselves.
Phyllis Payne August 15, 2011 at 09:25 PM
All of the studies show that the students DO sleep longer with the later start times. Some of the researchers suspect that teens who are well-rested are more efficient at completing homework assignments. Plus, it helps to be awake during class when the material is presented in the first place. The science is clear that sleep is a prerequisite to learning. Here's a nice summary addressing this point: http://schoolstarttime.org/delaying-school-start-times/will-students-squander-opportunity-extra-sleep/ Regarding your other point about students who feel apathetic about school: Later start times are extremely important for all students and perhaps students who feel apathetic about school might be more enthusiastic if they were able to get the sleep their brains and bodies require to grown, to learn and to maintain their own mental and physical health. There's evidence from some of the studies that student participation in after-school activities INCREASES when start times are LATER -- easy to understand how students who aren't exhausted might feel more inclined to participate.

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