By Jane Swift
Every year, 7:30 a.m. seems to come earlier.
If that sentiment seems familiar, perhaps you are the parent of a teenager. With three teenagers, the daily gauntlet to get them out the door and to school on time has gotten tougher as they reached middle and high school. This fact hit home when we experienced a two-hour delay this winter, a morning that still stands out as a glorious aberration from our normal, stressful routine.
Significant research has shown that early school start times negatively impact teenagers’ performance and health. But the growing debate has failed to identify any workable solutions to this challenge. Technology, however, may provide hope to tired teens and anguished administrators by providing flexibility for how and when students start their days.
Early start times create problems for students for a simple reason: Teenagers need sleep. Every parent who wonders what happened to that bright-eyed seven-year-old while trying to drag a sleepy middle schooler out of bed can attest to this. Teenagers have evolving sleep patterns that can keep them up into the wee hours, forcing them to tap the snooze button repeatedly the next morning. Not getting the recommended 8.5-9.5 hours a night means, as a researcher from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put it, many students enter the classroom as “essentially brain dead” and “walking zombies.”
If the idea of teen zombies roaming school hallways isn’t scary enough, a lack of sleep has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, depression and unhealthy behavior (drug, alcohol and tobacco use) among teens. The CDC also notes that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep tend to perform worse academically than their well-rested peers.
Sleepy students are starting to get sympathy from school leaders across the country. First-year Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang earned headlines when he suggested the district would look at later start times for older students.
Factors like transportation needs, parents’ work schedules, students’ work schedules, collective bargaining agreements and afterschool programs all need to be addressed. And all of these factors are politically thorny on some level.
Scholastic athletics, with its regular travel and daylight requirements, are especially tricky, both logistically and politically. With two daughters participating in spring sports, I both value the lessons they are learning on the field or golf course and lament the missed classes and family dinners. Starting and ending school later would mean more missed classes and more work to make up. And that’s if there can ever be consensus among sports leagues or statewide associations.
So what is the solution? One small district in Alabama has found a way to allow students to sleep in without changing the school schedule or reducing learning time. Piedmont City School District, located in a community with fewer than 5,000 residents about 90 miles from Birmingham, has created a virtual first period for 10th-12th grade students who maintain a B average. These students can complete the assignments for their first period class, which must include online coursework, anytime they want, allowing them to sleep in during the week.
This flexibility allows Night Owls to complete their assignments at 10pm while others could do them just after school. Other students could finish their coursework at home during the traditional first period or in their school’s computer lab.
In addition to allowing students to get extra sleep, educators say the virtual first period has also helped students become more independent learners by taking more responsibility for their academic careers. The district has seen results outside of first period, with a culture change in how many students approach their studies throughout the school day.
“Students have a higherlevel of accountability when it comes to their progress,” said Piedmont teacher Jennie Baer. “They also have the flexibility to work at their own pace and can focus on what is important on a particular day.”
We all know that many students are overscheduled but underserved. Digital instruction can allow schools to create more flexible programs without sacrificing quality, so that students can pursue subjects that matter to them and expand their educational horizons.
That is the true promise of digital learning: increased flexibility and access to high quality academic coursework for all students. And if it helps stop the spread of tired teenage zombies, we’ll all sleep a bit better.