Even if Deb Putnam’s teenagers go to bed at a decent hour, they wake up grumpy and have a hard time getting out of bed. They’re spacey and “out of it” in the late afternoon and evening, and by Wednesday night are completely exhausted. Sure, they’re teenagers going through cognitive changes who are juggling school, friends and extra-curriculars, but Putnam is convinced they’d be better off if Boston Latin Academy, where they attend school, pushed back its start time from 7:20 a.m.
“Besides seeing how tough it is for my kids, I was a teenager myself once and remember how difficult getting up could be,” she said. “For me, it’s a no brainer, and talking with some parents about the same issue showed me that a lot of people agreed.”
That’s why, in 2014, Putnam and other parents from Boston Latin Academy began meeting to educate and organize parents, students, teachers and administrators to try to change the start time. They’ve been unsuccessful thus far, which is why Putnam is glad City Council has taken on the issue.
City Councillor Annisa Essaibi George will hold a hearing on the issue in the coming weeks once the budget season is over. A former high school teacher, Essaibi George has seen firsthand the effects early start times have on bleary-eyed teenagers.
“I taught at East Boston High for 13 years, and we had a variety of different start times,” she said. “Whether it was 7:20 or 7:30, it’s just too early for teenage mind and body to be fully prepared to learn and embrace an academic day.”
Research backs her up. Due to a natural shift in their circadian rhythms, teenagers often can’t fall asleep until at least 11 p.m. Because more than half of Boston high schools start before 7:30 a.m., that means they’re only getting five to six hours of sleep instead of the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours. Studies show sleep deprivation can lead to anxiety, depression, and poor grades, to name a few. These studies led the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later for middle and high school students in 2014.
“Chronic sleep loss is one of the most common public health issues in the U.S. today,” said Judith Owens, director of sleep medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, who was involved in the APA’s decision. “Later start times show enormous benefits to students, not only in terms of their educations, but also for their minds, which are still developing.”
Students from minority or underprivileged backgrounds, in particular, benefit from more sleep, said Dr. Charles Czeisler, Chief, Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In Boston Public Schools, about half of students are economically disadvantaged, which means they’re more likely to have disrupted sleeping environments that might have more people and more noise, as compared to their economically advantaged counterparts, he said.
“There’s more sleep deficiency in underrepresented minority communities, and early start times certainly don’t help,” Czeisler said. “And no matter their background, kids are missing the strongest drive for REM sleep, which happens from about 6 til 8 in the morning and helps memory and information processing. It’s critical for learning.”
Not everyone is on board with the idea of starting school later in the morning. Putnam said she’s heard concerns from parents who worry about the effects on transportation and after-school activities, including sports since game and practice times would be delayed.
“We know a lot of kids take the MBTA, but it’s something we want the city to look at in the hearing,” she said. “But none of these problems are insurmountable.”
Essaibi George said Boston also needs to consider the fact that many students work after school, and a delayed start could affect their ability to hold a job.
“As much as we say a child’s work shouldn’t be the priority, a lot of our kids need to work,” she said. “So we have to be aware of that, too.”
Boston wouldn’t be the first school district in the state to push back high school start times. Schools in at least eight districts have made the change, including Nauset High School in Eastham, which after switching in 2012, saw a 53 percent drop in the number of failing grades. A report from The Globe on the issue showed tardiness in the district fell by 35 percent. The state legislature is also considering a bill to study the issue.
“I know Boston is committed to innovation and best practices,” Putnam said. “So for me this is also about trying to keep Boston at the same pace as other districts nationwide.”
There is currently no plan to alter start times, according to a statement from the district, but officials will hear all sides of the issue from school community members before making a decision.
“Any decision on altering arrival or dismissal times at any school must be carefully considered to include a number of factors, which are not limited to transportation and accommodating students with special needs,” the statement said. “At this time there is no plan in Boston to begin high school classes later in the morning, but the BPS will continue to examine the issue and is looking forward to discussions on how to best meet the needs of students.”
Essaibi George also stressed that changing to a later morning start won’t happen overnight.
“We’re not going to come up with an immediate solution,” she said. “After the hearing, we’d have a working session, which I describe as rolling up our sleeves and ironing out the details, and then I’d present my findings to the school committee to involve them in this.”
Still, Czeisler said schools would be best advised to change their start times.
“Early school start times contribute to sleep deficiency in children, increases the risk of physical and mental health problems, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety disorders and increase the risk of being diagnosed with ADHD because symptoms of sleep deficiency often masquerade as ADHD,” he said. “Other than that, they’re great.”