High schools should push start times past 8 a.m.

Most respondents to a Milestone survey prefer a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later. Image credit: highlandradio.com.

McNicholas High School starts its day at 7:40 a.m. However, recent studies decisively show that starting school at or after 8:30 a.m. corresponds with increased academic success—higher test scores and improved grades—and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high schools begin classes, at the earliest, at 8:30 a.m.

In an October survey conducted by The McNicholas Milestone, 85% of the 97 respondents said that they believe school should start later. Over half of all respondents (53%) support a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later.

“People shouldn’t even go to work that early,” junior Katia Roetenberger said.

Studies are also showing that mental health is positively impacted by improved sleep. Rates of depression and anxiety are staunchly lower among students at schools with later start times than among students whose schools begin early.

Roetenberger’s comment about work start times alludes to a persistent argument against later start times for high schools: Most white-collar employees begin their days at 8 a.m. and must be awake much earlier for commuting and morning routines. Why shouldn’t high schools start equally early?

Humans are creatures of habit, so it can be reasonably concluded that waking up early during high school will prepare students for waking up early during careers. However, there is strong evidence showing that adolescents’ sleep schedules tend toward going to bed late and sleeping in during the morning. Compared to adults, who need less sleep than teens, adolescents’ sleep requirements are much more demanding.

In an era where society is discovering and confirming the importance of sleep, it is especially critical that students’ biological needs be met. “Waking up that early [to start school at 7:40] isn’t good for me,” Roetenberger said. This claim isn’t an excuse for laziness; it’s a conclusion drawn from years of research.

“Both short sleep and late sleeping hours [on weekends to compensate for early weekdays] have been shown to correlate with poor school performance, possibly via a pathway involving reduced attention and increased daytime somnolence,” according to a study published in Nature.

In spite of well-established scientific consensus regarding teenagers’ sleep needs, the current early-start paradigm persists. School bus routes, often determined and funded by local public school districts, are a seemingly insurmountable obstacle on the road to improved student health.

Freshman Augustus Block said that he “likes earlier start times because that leaves more homework time,” which speaks to a legitimate concern among students that could be jeopardized by the school day being shifted later.

Events like the twice-yearly time changes also shake up student sleep schedules. Senior Dominic Daley believes that schools should “simply ignore the time change” and adjust start times accordingly.

It can be challenging to piece together an after-school puzzle that provides more time for sleep. Sports practices, club meetings, and family obligations add up to a significant portion of many students’ extracurricular time, which seemingly leaves a diminishing amount of time for ever-important homework.

This is perhaps the most circular argument for the status quo: A later start time means a later end time and therefore leaves less time for homework. But this claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Increased sleep means increased productivity. By allowing students to be better rested, homework will take less time. And through stronger in-class learning, studying will be much more efficient and much less time-consuming.

Schools and districts in the Cincinnati area are currently taking steps to push back their start times. Last school year, the Forest Hills School District (which oversees Anderson and Turpin High Schools) adjusted its start time 40 minutes later.

This past April, Cincinnati Public Schools approved a plan to start all of its high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

The movement for later high school start times, backed by empirical evidence, is gaining traction. This is a boon for students, schools, and the nation.

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