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Oct 19, 201201:45 PMEducation Matters

More than 3,700 people sign petition to change MCPS high school start times

Oct 19, 2012 - 01:45 PM
More than 3,700 people sign petition to change MCPS high school start times

Every morning on a school day, my high school sophomore struggles to pull herself out of bed. Even though we impose a 10 p.m. bedtime, she says she often can’t fall asleep until 11 or later. So that 6 a.m. alarm comes awfully early, leaving her feel groggy as she heads out the door to catch the school bus and certainly less than fully alert by the time she sits down in her first-period class at 7:25 a.m.

She’s not the only one.

Parents and teachers everywhere can attest to the reality of dealing with teens whose circadian rhythms don’t match up with the traditional early-morning start times in our public high schools. The National Sleep Foundation says that teens need more than nine hours of sleep at night to function best; most get much less than that.

Chronically sleep-deprived during the week, our teens try to make up the deficit on weekends, further screwing up their biological clocks and creating a vicious cycle that can’t help but impact their academic performance.

So why can’t our high schools start later than they do? That’s what Mandi Mader of Garrett Park and lots of other local parents want to know. A clinical social worker who works with adolescents, Mader has grown frustrated trying to help local county high school students who come to her suffering from stress, depression and anxiety that’s often related to sleep deprivation.

“Sleep is so crucial and I hit a brick wall,” she said Thursday.

That’s why Mader decided to take action. She recently posted a message on the listserve for Walter Johnson High School, where her son is a sophomore, asking if anyone else was concerned about the sleep deprivation connected to early high-school start times. Apparently, she struck a nerve.

“The listserve kind of went crazy,” she said.

From there, Mader and a handful of other concerned parents met and founded a local chapter of Start School Later, a national coalition calling for schools to set start times that are more compatible with students’ health, safety and ability to learn.   

One week ago, Mader and company launched an online petition calling for Montgomery County Public Schools to change high school start times to 8:15 a.m. or later. More than 3,700 people have signed so far.

Mader said the group plans to eventually deliver the petition to MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr and the county Board of Education.

It will be interesting to see whether the issue, which has come up from time to time over years, gains any traction this time around. MCPS spokesman Dana Tofig said Thursday that the school system has studied changing start times over the years, but doing so is not something that the school board is currently considering.

“Obviously, it would affect every single student,” he said, noting that changing start times creates issues with transportation, student activities and the ability of high schoolers to work after school. “It would have a substantial impact on our operations and be expensive to implement.”

Still, Tofig said that school officials would “certainly review” Mader’s petition and “respond accordingly.” 

Mader said she and other advocates know it would be difficult to make the change, but they point to other school districts across the country that have done so successfully. Public high schools in Arlington County and Loudoun County, both much smaller than the nearly 147,000-student MCPS, both have later starting times for high school.

And Fairfax County Public Schools is studying—once again—the issue of changing start times.

Mader said parents are asking MCPS—with its reputation as an education leader— to “take leadership and own” the later start time issue. There are lots of possibilities for creative solutions, she said, such as allowing high schoolers to opt out of attending first-period classes and take them online instead.

Parents “can’t really come up with the best solution,” Mader said. “But we want to hold the superintendent and the board’s feet to the fire on this.” 

Oct 19, 2012 03:11 pm
 Posted by  StartSchoolLater

It's fantastic to see this critical but extremely frustrating issue back on the MCPS radar screen. Yes, the issue has come and gone many times in the past, and, yes, the solutions will require some serious thinking out of the box. However, given what we now know about the extent and magnitude of the harm we are doing to our children and communities with these absurdly early hours (which were implemented a few decades back and are hardly sacred), we have no choice but to work for change. Sleep and school start times turn out to be issues of public health and equity, and therefore can no longer be regarded as negotiable budget items. For more information on the issue or what you can do to help, see our website: www.StartSchoolLater.net.

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