Improve education in Texas: Let teens get their sleep

Students crowd the hallway after the last bell rings at Liberty High School in Frisco. Photo by Lara Solt for KERA

My radar detected unhealthy daily school start times when my daughter was a toddler. The teenager next door would leave for high school, her noisy car heading off in the pre-dawn light.

In the early 1990s, Arlington ISD, like school districts across the country, tiered school starting times to save money on transportation — using the same set of buses for every school level. Our district decided to start high school first.

We dreaded the start of high school, with a start time 90 minutes earlier than that of middle school. Within a week, I connected the dots. Our once early riser had to be roused from a deep sleep, rushed through a morning routine that left little time or appetite for breakfast. Her pediatrician recommended a small doze of melatonin if she had trouble falling asleep at bedtime. Unfortunately, this became a nightly need and the way she survived high school.

Arlington became the seventh local chapter of Start School Later in the country. SSL is a national non-profit promoting daily start times providing for the health, safety, education and equity for students. Today there are 114 chapters in 28 states — all led by volunteer parents, educators, administrators and health professionals.

Adolescents are biologically programmed to fall asleep later at night than younger children, and require about nine hours of sleep. Multiple studies indicate healthy daily high school start times increase attendance, graduation rates and academic performance; high-risk behavior, such as suicide ideation, violence and substance abuse decreases.

A RAND corporation study predicts the Texas economy could gain $3.3 billion in 10 years if districts started high school after 8:30 a.m. through higher academic and professional performance of students and reduced car crash rates among adolescents.

My school district wasn’t aware of the emerging body of adolescent sleep research in 1992, when bus schedules were first staggered — but they do now.

Since 2012, the school district has ignored recommendations from the Texas School Health Advisory Committee, the district budget committee, the district start time committee, the editorial board of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Tarrant County League of Women Voters, and two dozen national health and education groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the PTA.

For six years, district administrators and the school board have told members of SSL Arlington they are “open” to seeking ways to examine the current bell schedule. There is no evidence they plan to do that, however.

The state should ensure school districts set bell schedules that recognize the biology of their learners. Arlington ISD is the poster child for this problem; like most school districts, Arlington can’t get beyond “should we” to “how can we” to make this necessary change.

Local control of school systems may be a Texas value, but there are times when state laws and regulations are necessary to fix pervasive problems. Parents have the right to follow science when it comes to healthy bed and wake times for adolescents.

A single note from a physician allows a student to participate in sports or return to school after an illness. Yet thousands of doctors represented by an ever-growing list of health groups issuing position statements on healthy high school daily start times are ignored by — most school districts in Texas.

Would we tolerate a school district choosing to ignore lead in its drinking fountains or asbestos in its ceiling tiles?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies adolescent sleep deprivation as a public health crisis. The American Academy of Pediatrics lays the blame at the schoolhouse steps.

The first studies of the effects of early school start times on adolescent health and learning were released over 25 years ago. Is it acceptable for school districts to disregard an unquestionable body of research?

Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, Tyler, Austin and 110 other Texas school districts have developed high school bell schedules respecting adolescent sleep science. It is obvious that 862 districts, like Arlington, will require state action to ensure school schedules align to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents.

Debbie O. Moore

Chapter leader, Start School Later Arlington