Later start times mulled

Presentation by students inspires committee

HOLLIS – Millions of people recently felt the daylight saving time "hangover" as they adjusted to the loss of one precious hour of sleep. Among the tired was Maggie O’Hara. The Hollis Brookline High School junior says many of her peers were tired, too – and they’re tired nearly all the time.

O’Hara has her weekdays filled with advanced classes and her afternoons filled with sports practice and club activities. Evenings are devoted to homework. She is also the student body vice president and has a parttime job.

But what’s really making her tired, she said, is waking up at 6 a.m. That means she’s seldom able to get more than seven hours’ sleep on weeknights. Scientific data shows teens need nine to 10 hours, and starting school too early is unhealthy and incompatible with adolescent sleep needs and patterns, O’Hara said. Moreover, studies show lack of sleep can lead to obesity, attention disorders, decreased immune system functioning, suboptimal school performance and a risk of mental problems.

Hollis Brookline High and Hollis Brookline Middle School start at 7:15, but many students, especially those in Brookline, have to get on the bus at 6:20, she said.

On behalf of the Student Council, O’Hara and two classmates petitioned the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School Board last year to push the start time to 9 a.m. They showed the board a PowerPoint presentation about how lack of sleep affects physical and mental health and how sleep patterns change when children become adolescents, making it harder to go to sleep before 11 p.m.

As a result of the presentation, the School Board formed a committee that is now looking into the issue. O’Hara is one of two students on the committee, made up School Board and Budget Committee members, school administrators, residents and students. "A lot of Hollis Brookline students are fatigued," O’Hara said.

"We are a very rigorous school," and stress, plus the lack of sleep, add up to very tired students. Most studies show high schools shouldn’t start before 9 a.m., she said. "That may seem like a lot, but when you look at the research on side effects, it’s not unreasonable," O’Hara said.

The students’ presentation featured recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that middle and high schools not start classes until 8:30 a.m. For teens, the AAP said, nine or 10 hours of sleep each night promotes mental and physical health, improved memory and improved grades. The doctors also said half of teens in their studies reported feeling unhappy and hopeless, especially those reporting lack of sleep.

Senior Haley Recke learned about sleep cycles in an AP psychology class last year and was among the three students who proposed the study. "It was not that we were being lazy," she said. "It’s that our brains physically are not able to function as well as they would after 9 a.m. … Being at a very competitive school like Hollis Brookline, I thought it would be a good idea to get this idea up the chain to better our rankings, scores and overall education." Recke said the students took a survey of their psychology classes.

"We concluded that the majority of us were sleep deprived," she said. O’Hara knows this isn’t the first time the Hollis and Brookline districts have considered changing the start time, and that there was an effort in the 1990s that failed. But she isn’t discouraged. "Even if it just makes people aware, it will be helpful," she said. Among the issues school districts face in changing their start times are the logistics of bus schedules and afterschool activities.

Schools Superintendent Andrew Corey, who is on the committee, said he expects the committee members will work for several months, aiming at a final report in September. "There are a number of factors that come into play, including union agreements and transportation contracts," he said. Amherst and Mont Vernon schools studied the issue about seven years ago, with a study committee looking at the potential benefits and drawbacks of a later start time, and concluded that starting all schools 30 minutes later would bring the most benefit and cause the least disruption. But to implement the change, all three districts had to agree. Although the Souhegan High School Board voted in favor, the Amherst School Board voted no and the Mont Vernon board split its vote, so the change didn’t happen.

In Massachusetts, the start-time movement recently caught on, with several school districts studying and debating the issue.

The Nauset Regional School District, on Cape Cod, spent years considering the change of its 7:25 start time to 8:25 a.m., and "ultimately the research into the benefits of a later start time proved too persuasive to ignore," the Boston Globe reported.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.