Photo via Wikimedia Commons

For teenagers who’ve had the luxury of sleeping in all summer, transitioning to the early-morning school day can be, well, a rude awakening. But for students at three area high school schools, that blow will be softened by a new schedule modification. When the 2017–2018 school year begins, classes at the upper schools of Gilman, Roland Park Country School and Bryn Mawr will start one hour later—at 9 a.m.—every Wednesday.

The change happened after faculty members from the three upper schools, which share a coordinated academic schedule that hadn’t been updated in at least 20 years, met last year over the course of several months to review and revise it. “Programs we now have are a lot different. Certainly, the life of a teenager is a lot different than it was twenty or thirty years ago,” said Bart Griffith Jr., assistant head at Gilman.

With their busy and sometimes stretched-too-thin teenage students in mind, the tri-school committee members spent time mulling over research, gathering feedback from faculty and students and determining how best to update the schedule to reflect their findings. They didn’t agree on everything. But one shared priority soon became clear.

“The top issue was the health and wellness of the children, especially related to sleep deprivation,” Griffith noted.

“All the research shows that, as students reach puberty, their sleep patterns change,” said Elaine Swyryn, dean of faculty at Bryn Mawr, referring to adolescents’ shifting biological clocks, which make them resist bedtime before 10 or 11 p.m. “Schools sort of have it upside down, with young kids coming in early and older kids coming in later.”

Taking into account this and other factors preventing teens from getting sufficient sleep during the school week, the tri-school committee implemented this seemingly small schedule change they hope will have a big impact. Now, when the mid-week slump begins to take hold, students can instead set their alarms a full hour later.

Weary students voice approval

Not surprisingly, the move proved popular among students.

“I think it’s great,” said Piper Bond Jr. of the later Wednesday start. “When I get a good sleep, I do much better in the classroom, on the athletic fields. I think that’s true for a lot of people,” added the rising Gilman senior and student body president.

But with a packed schedule, a good night’s sleep is often elusive for Bond and his classmates. “We’re usually here from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day. By the time you’re finished, it’s getting pretty late,” he said.

If he achieves his goal of turning off the lights at 10:30 p.m. on school nights, Bond will get about eight-and-a-half-hours of sleep; that’s within the eight to 10 hours per night recommended by The National Sleep Foundation. But he doesn’t always succeed.

Once he eats dinner, unwinds and gets his homework done, Bond says some nights he doesn’t get to bed until 12:30 or 1 a.m., especially if he has a busy evening or finds himself procrastinating — usually, he admits, because he’s distracted by his cell phone. Then he’s up the next morning around 7 a.m.

The vicious late-night, early-morning cycle is common among teens. Laurel Perry, whose three sons attend Gilman, says she collects her 16-year-old son’s phone and cuts off the Wi-Fi before bedtime so he isn’t tempted to use it into the wee hours of the night. But in the morning, when she returns her son’s phone to him, she sees that he’s routinely received texts from friends as late as 2 and 3 a.m.

Sleeplessness takes a toll

Whether homework, electronic devices, changing circadian rhythms or other factors prevent teens from getting enough shut-eye, the Sleep Foundation estimates that fewer than 10 percent of high school students achieve the recommended amount of sleep. Perhaps that’s why Bond frequently witnesses his peers nodding off during the school day (he says he’s tried but can’t sleep at school).

There’s the immediate grogginess teens feel when they fail to get a good night sleep. But researchers have linked long-term sleep deprivation to far worse consequences, including an inability to concentrate, irritability, anxiety and even depression and suicidal thoughts. That’s why Bond ran his campaign for student body president last year largely around the concept of a “re-charging day,” which he envisioned would include a more relaxed schedule. He had no idea that the school administration was, simultaneously, contemplating a similar plan.

Inadvertent benefits to later start

For students, the upside to a once-a-week later start time is clear. But some faculty members express similar enthusiasm about the change’s effects—for them and their colleagues.

“There’s a real benefit for the faculty to have an hour of dedicated work time, to do some of the real thinking around curriculum,” said Carla Spawn-van Berkum, assistant head of school at Roland Park Country School. “Ours is a much more complicated job now that we know more about how the brain works.”

Spawn-van Berkum and her colleagues on the committee that pushed for the later start time recognize not all students will be able to take advantage of it (the three schools will open at the regular time on Wednesdays for students who need to be dropped off early). But with some forethought, she believes they too can sneak in an extra hour of sleep mid-week. “They can say to themselves, ‘Hey, I’m going to leave a [homework] subject for tomorrow morning and go to bed at 10 instead of 11,’” she suggested.

Such is the case at Friends School, which a few years ago implemented a 10 a.m. start time the first Wednesday of every month. The purpose was to allocate time for professional development and collaboration. But certainly, some students have taken advantage of the incidental benefit of sleeping in. Even just a slower, more gradual start to the school day seems to help adolescents fully wake up before engaging their brains.

That’s why five years ago, when Friends revised its upper school schedule, it moved most academic classes to a start time no earlier than 8:55 a.m. Non-academic classes such as gym are held during the first period, which begins at 8 a.m.

“Certainly the research surrounding adolescent brains and sleep cycles was a factor,” said Greta Rutstein, director of academics at Friends.

This type of out-of-the-box thinking allowed the Gilman/Roland Park/Bryn Mawr tri-school committee to make the once-a-week change happen, in spite of several considerations and concessions. They had to figure out, for instance, what part of the academic day would be cut short to accommodate the later start time. Ultimately, they chose to shave off 10 minutes per 70-minute class. Most feel it’s a minor loss compared to the extra sleep students will gain.

Elsewhere, schedule changes underway

It’s challenging enough to make a minor, once-a-week change to three schools whose schedules are coordinated. But elsewhere, efforts are underway to institute more sweeping modifications to entire school districts.

Start School Later-Baltimore County is a grassroots initiative backed by parents, teachers and community members who feel similarly to Catonsville parent of four Andra Williams Broadwater: “Well yeah, duh. It’s just not healthy for teenagers [to start school so early].”

With a background in education policy, Broadwater finds herself spearheading the effort to convince the Baltimore County Public School System that school should start later for adolescents.

“There are 115,000 students in the district. I do not have the answers on how this should be done, but it is a conversation that should be happening,” she said.

Broadwater points to the recommendation of leading medical organization American Academy of Pediatrics that middle and high schools do not start school before 8:30 a.m. California, she notes, currently has a bill in the state assembly that would require schools to adhere to this expert advice. That, too, is her goal as head of Start School Later-Baltimore County.

While this later start time may sound extreme to those who are used to greeting students as early as 7 a.m., it’s an idea that’s clearly gaining traction.

“The more research I read, the more excited I got about thinking that this is best done every day,” said Bryn Mawr’s Swyryn.

Elizabeth Heubeck

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore Fishbowl contributor and local freelance writer.

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