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 on their own.
"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, drop-out rates and even auto accidents all decline when students head to school after 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.
"Teens have a different body clock," said Terra Ziporyn Snider, the co-founder of Start School Later, a grassroots advocacy group that has pushed schools for delayed bells. "You don't run schools at a time when kids aren't ready to learn."
There isn't an easy fix.
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 mid-afternoon.