Guest Column: Ring the school bell a little later

Credit: Clip art/Microsoft Images

Credit: Clip art/Microsoft Images

Riverhead High School has one of the earliest start times on Long Island and we’re trying to change that. Why? Because there is a growing body of evidence showing that moving school start times later than the 7 a.m. hour improves student test scores and health. 

Efforts to rally Riverhead’s residents have been met mostly with yawns, however. Students fear that moving school start times will eliminate sports (it does not), and school administrators are too busy figuring out how to boost academic achievement while keeping budgets within the 2 percent tax cap. Meanwhile, parents think that early school start times and cranky teens are simply a rite of passage.

They don’t have to be.

In just the past few weeks, schools in Iowa, Indiana, Massachusetts and Washington announced efforts to study starting school later. This follows more than a dozen schools that pushed their start times later in the 2012-13 school year. As of this writing, schools in 41 states have moved their start times later.

Meanwhile, Riverhead — which starts class at 7:15 a.m. — and most other Long Island towns have students often waiting in the dark for bus pickup during winter hours as early as 6:10 a.m. That means some teens must rise as early as 5 a.m. to make the bus. These early rise times can follow late returns home from after-school activities, not to mention homework once the kids get home, which can oftentimes add up to more than a few hours’ worth.

Many students have told us that this schedule causes them to average four to six hours of sleep a night, despite the fact that studies have shown that teens require nine hours of sleep each night.

What happens when they don’t get enough sleep? Probably the same thing that happens to most of us: we get tired, irritable, and have difficulty focusing. As one sleep expert at Yale University states, asking an adolescent to perform in school during the 7 o’clock hour is the equivalent of asking an adult to perform their job during the 4 a.m. hour.

This is one reason why students, parents, and administrators around the country are waking up to the overwhelming evidence of how later school start times benefit students and communities. Research we have found shows us that more sleep among teens leads to:

• Better academic performance and improved test scores;

• Reductions in absences, tardiness, and disciplinary problems;

• Improved safety by eliminating waiting for buses in the dark;

• Drops in teen depression, suicides, and teen-driving-related accidents;

• Decreases in alcohol and drug abuse; and,

• Increases in the number of teens who report getting more and better sleep.

Still not convinced?

Some of the school districts that moved their start times later actually saved money in the process. Others found ways to make the change that was cost neutral. So, what we have here is an idea that can improve student performance and teen health at little to no cost. Why isn’t Riverhead all over this?

In some communities that have moved their school start times later, parents, school administrators, teachers and coaches are saying it’s the best thing they ever did. Some say they wish they had done it sooner.

As co-directors of Start School Later Long Island, a chapter of the national Start School Later, we offer our assistance to Riverhead and other Long Island towns in figuring out how to make this happen. Perhaps school start times were something you thought you had to accept the way they are. They’re not.

Schools around the country are showing us that there is a better way — and it can lead to happier, healthier and higher-performing students. And it doesn’t have to cost a cent.

Cliff Baldwin is the parent of a Riverhead High School student. Susan Lamontagne is the parent of two Sag Harbor Elementary School students. They lead Start School Later Long Island and can be reached at Facebook/StartSchoolLaterLongIsland.com. For more information about the Start School Later effort, visit StartSchoolLater.net.