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Later start times urged for students in higher grades

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PITTSBURGH — Sipping a java chip Frappuccino en route to her first day of ninth grade Friday, Ahmani Johnson said she was excited to begin high school but annoyed that she had to wake up so early. Pediatricians feel her pain about the sleep loss.

The American Academy of Pediatrics announced last month that it is recommending that middle and high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later, drawing on research that points to teenagers' need for 8½ to 9½ hours of sleep and evidence that delaying school start times is an effective way to mitigate the detrimental effects of chronic sleep loss.

This past school year Ahmani, 14, was used to rising at 6:45 every morning and catching a yellow school bus near her home in the Hill District. Now, with the help of a new alarm clock, she gets up about 5 a.m. and takes a Port Authority bus to Downtown so she can get to Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 by 7:30 a.m., about an hour earlier than she had to be there last year.

Middle and high school start times vary significantly across the region, from 7:11 a.m. to 9:10 a.m. just among Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The pediatricians' policy statement, four years in the making, builds on a growing body of evidence that has reached a tipping point, said lead author Judy Owens, a sleep medicine specialist at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

"The evidence is overwhelming," she said. "If they have to board a bus at 5:45 a.m. for a 7:20 a.m. start time, as many of them do, that simply does not in any way, shape or form allow them to get the sleep that they need."

She said lack of sleep hurts student health, safety and performance.

Owens called the American Academy of Pediatrics the nation's leading advocate for child and adolescent health and said the academy putting its weight behind the recommendation draws attention to the issue.

"It highlights the importance of sleep to kids' health and well-being and frames it as a public health issue," she said.

"There's no question that sleep loss in adolescents is a really prevalent public health problem," said Peter Franzen, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who has done experimental studies on sleep and adolescent emotions. "People think it's cultural, that kids just want to stay up, but it's actually biological."

Hormonal changes that shift teenagers' circadian rhythms, making it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m., combine with environmental factors such as a desire to socialize and early morning classes to form a "school sleep squeeze," he said.

Franzen, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, said decades of research has proved that insufficient sleep is deleterious, hurting academic performance and increasing teenagers' risk of depression as well as rates of absenteeism, tardiness, substance use and car accidents.

He shared some of these findings recently with teachers in the Gateway School District, which is considering later start times as part of its initiative to "educate the whole child," said superintendent Nina Zetty. District officials will spend the year evaluating how start times impact education and the logistics that accompany making such a change, she said.

Zetty said she was particularly moved by the research on drowsy driving, where the level of impairment due to sleepiness can equate to moderate alcohol intoxication, noting that losing just one student in an accident is too many.

School officials said they recognize the health benefits that could come from starting later, but transportation arrangements, athletics schedules and limited funding make it more difficult than it might appear.

"Having wrestled my own teenagers out of bed in the morning, I'm familiar," said Linda Lane, Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent. "It's a quandary, there's no doubt about it, but there's no simple solution."

Transportation, in particular, poses challenges. As a cost-saving measure in 2012, Pittsburgh Public Schools proposed moving start times back, reducing the number of Port Authority bus passes it doled out and increasing the number of runs that yellow school buses made from two to three.

Meryl Butters, a professor of psychiatry at Pitt's medical school and mother of a senior at Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy 6-12, spearheaded a protest against these earlier start times. If there had to be a change, she said, she thought it made more sense to shift times for younger students, whose bedtimes are easier to adjust.

Citing safety concerns, Lane said she did not want elementary school students waiting for the bus in the dark.

"You can do anything you want with school start times if money is no option," she said, but increasing the amount spent on transportation would take away funding from teachers, facilities and supplies. The district currently spends about $35 million a year on student transportation, nearly 7 percent of its budget.

But that cost is not the only thing driving early start times.

"The hard part in Western Pennsylvania is interscholastic athletics are a very big part of the culture," said Andrew Surloff, principal at Quaker Valley High School .

With boys and girls varsity and junior varsity teams competing for space on the district's few courts and fields, scheduling is difficult as is, he said.

Students are sometimes pulled out of class as much as an hour early for away games, and most varsity games begin at 7:30 p.m., meaning student athletes often do not get home until after 10. He said starting school later would just exacerbate this and could impact students who have after-school jobs.


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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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