WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — As committees in West Hartford and Simsbury begin evaluating the impacts of changing school start times, high school students in those districts said they think school should start later in the morning.

And according to Trinity College neuroscience professor who has advocated later school start times at the high school level for over five years, the science behind adolescent sleep schedules solidifies the argument.

“The science is overwhelming,” Sarah Raskin said during a recent interview. “It’s a question of finding a way to make the transition, because the change is clearly worth it.”

Raskin said that sleep cycles are controlled by hormones and that starting during puberty, those hormones shift. Adolescents’ brains, Raskin said, “are just not capable of falling asleep before 11 o’clock at night.”

“So if you’re not falling asleep until 11 o’clock at night and you’re not ready to be awake until 8 in the morning, it becomes extremely difficult to be up at 5:30 or 6 at the bus stop and at school by 7 or 7:30 and ready to do calculus or physics or whatever else we expect them to do at 7:30 in the morning,” Raskin said. “So what we’re forcing our children to do is get into bed before they’re ready, lay there wide awake staring at the ceiling until 11 or 11:30 at night and then we force them to get up right in the middle of one of their deepest sleep cycles.”

This, Raskin said, leads to sleep deprivation, which has been linked to increases in suicidal thoughts, increased risk-taking with alcohol and drug use, more tardiness, less academic performance in the classroom and standardized testing, increases in the number of motor vehicle accidents and sports injuries.

“It’s a simple fix, it certainly requires a lot of effort when you first make the move,” Raskin said. “I don’t want to minimize the barriers and challenges involved, but once you’ve made that move you take care of so many vast health issues in our children — immune systems change, mental health changes, physical ability to respond behind the wheel and on-the-field changes — all of them can be improved with this one change in the classroom.”

Maddy Hoang, a 15-year-old sophomore at Conard High School, said she tries to wake up each morning around 6:15 a.m. and heads to bed at around 11:30 p.m. She said she thinks the school’s start time — 7:20 a.m. — is too early.

Hoang’s father John agrees — “7:30 seems a little early to start,” he said.

Jillian Gallagher, 15, a sophomore at Conard, said she typically goes to bed around 10 p.m., but has stayed up a few hours late on nights before a test or when she had field hockey matches or practice.

In Simsbury, high school parent Anna Vdovenko said she is strongly in favor of later school start times.

“Clearly these kids are exhausted,” Vdovenko said. “They have no life except school and activities, and they’re so stressed out.”

Between homework, theater rehearsal and dance class, Vdovenko’s daughter Anna-Maria often doesn’t get to bed until at least 11:30 p.m. Her next day starts at 6 a.m. when she wakes up to get to school.

“Every day I’m so tired,” Anna-Maria said. “It’d be awesome to just get even one more hour of sleep.”

Anna Vdovenko said decision-makers need to consider what is best and healthiest for students.

“It’s important to take care of our teenagers,” she said. “We need to fall into step with what’s best for our kids.”

Prompted by a school board request at the end of the last school year, West Hartford’s committee is charged to research what the impacts would be if the district were to change school start times.

Leading the charge is the district’s director of secondary education, Anne McKernan, and a roughly 20-member committee including teachers, parents, the district’s athletic director, music and arts directors, a representative from the teacher’s union.

“We’re not making a decision on this, we’re kind of acting as a research arm (for the school board),” McKernan said.

In Simsbury, Erin Murray the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said the high school leadership team focused on student stress and a large part of the conversation last year was on school start times.

The 25- to 30-member Simsbury committee is composed of high school and middle school teachers, parents, students and school board members, Murray said.

Both Murray and McKernan said they hope to have final presentations made to their school boards next spring.

McKernan’s group has had different researchers present their information, including former state Rep. Kevin Sullivan who attempted to roll out a statewide change in school start times in 2001.

Raskin, who works in the department of psychology and neuorscience, as well as Susan Rubman, the director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Hospital of Central Connecticut, have also presented their findings to the group.

The West Hartford group is studying the impact of a later start time on transportation, athletics, academics, teachers, sleep schedules, town resources and activities, and hopes to learn from Wilton, which rolled out later school start times nearly 15 years ago.

In 2002, after conducting reviews of adolescent sleep deprivation and high school student and teacher surveys, the League of Women Voters recommended that Wilton consider their study and take appropriate action.

In spring 2003, parents and teachers were given the opportunity to take part in an “advisory vote” and list the reasons for their vote. That data showed that parents supported a change to later school start times at the middle and high schools two-to-one, and teachers opposed the change two-to-one.

In fall 2003, Wilton switched start times at the middle and high school level from 7:35 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. Middle and high school students originally ended their day at 2:10 p.m., but switched to a 2:50 p.m. end time.

Third grade through fifth grade students went from an 8:10 a.m. start time to 7:40 a.m. and instead of ending their day at 2:45 p.m. left school at 2:15 p.m.

Wilton reported a “resounding success” but noted some unintended consequences like higher enrollment and having to add an additional school bus.

“Every situation is different for different communities,” then-Superintendent Gary G. Richards wrote of the change. “We believed that the medical evidence regarding adolescent sleep deprivation was compelling. Building support took the most time, effort and energy and required nearly two years from start to finish, with most of the fireworks occurring in the last three months before the Board of Education approved it in May.”


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Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com