Movement to Change School Times Lands in Howard County

A local father says high school students are sleep deprived.

Can you remember a time when you were sleep deprived? Maybe you couldn’t figure out why your house key wouldn’t start the car, or you misspelled your boss’s name?

“Any adult can remember a time when we were sleep deprived,” Mark Donovan said. “ We know how it affected us. Why do we not think that it affects our kids the same way?”

In fact, said Donovan, a clinical therapist based in Columbia, it does. Donovan has joined a growing movement to push back the start times of high school in an attempt to fix the “chronic sleep deprivation” that many say is evident in teenagers.

He has started the Howard County chapter of StartSchoolLater, a national coalition “concerned that children and teenagers required to start the school [day] too early in the morning face unnecessary challenges.” 

The group is advocating for high schools to start, at the earliest, at 8 a.m. and has a petition circulating online.

Donovan has met with members of the Howard County Board of Education and the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) as they begin a study into “the opening time of schools and the impact that an early opening has on the health and well-being of school students.”  

HCPSS is in the earliest stages of a study to determine whether it will change start times; specifically, according to spokesperson Rebecca Amani-Dove, whether elementary schools should start first and high schools last.

The first part of the study is the cost feasibility and impact analysis, which will address the questions posed by those skeptical of changing school start times, including: child care, athletics programs, and, what Amani-Dove called one of the biggest issues: transportation. 

As for the cost analysis, she said, “If we find it’s too costly or not feasible, we won’t move on to the second phase.”

If changing start times is financially viable, however, HCPSS will go on to the second step, which will include surveys of stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers and local businesses.

The study, Amani-Dove said, will likely take about a year and any approved changes would not go into effect until, at the earliest, the 2014/2015 school year.

'Part of being an adult'

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing the National Sleep Foundation, says teenagers need 8.5 – 9.25 hours of sleep.

In Howard County, high schools begin at 7:25 a.m.; if a student needed one hour to get ready before school, that student would need to be in bed by 10 p.m.

Some people who are not in favor of changing start times say parents should be able to get their kids in bed by then. “They have to learn that’s what after high school is,” Verna Schlein wrote on Ellicott City Patch’s Facebook page. “Getting up early and going to work … budgeting sleep, school homework and playtime is part of being an adult.

“We know they are adults because they keep telling us they are.”

Just being in bed by 10 p.m. isn’t enough, Donovan said. 

“You can send your teen to bed at 10, but they won’t sleep,” he said, citing research that concludes teenagers are on different sleep cycles.

According to Contemporary Pediatrics (citing the journal Neuroscience Letters), a change in circadian rhythms of teenagers – the biological clock that dictates when animals sleep and wake – means teenagers fall asleep later than their younger siblings or parents.

Teenagers, according to the article, have a biologically-rooted “‘Night owl’ tendency to stay up late.”

'Where there's a will, there's a way'

Another argument against pushing back the start times for high school deals with child-care.

“Many high schoolers watch their younger siblings,” Jane Nicholson Holcomb wrote. If the teenagers got out of school later, “Parents would then have the cost of daycare, which they may not be able to afford.”

Others express concern that extra curricular activities would suffer. “What would happen to high school sports and teens that have jobs?” Lisa Barnard Brown wrote. “Early start is fine in my house!”

Of course, money is always a concern. Pushing back the high school start times could mean more buses are necessary as high schoolers could now be on the road the same time as middle school and even elementary school students. 

To this, says Maribel Ibrahim, a Patch blogger and the Anne Arundel County-based founder of the national StartSchoolLater organization, there is no single answer, but, she said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The community can adjust.”

People in communities across the country have made these changes, she said, noting a page on the SchoolStartLater website with examples of different approaches to pushing back school times - some at-cost, some for free.

'Everything's not OK'

In many cases, Ibrahim said, students don’t even know they’re sleep deprived and giving them a little more productive sleep can lead to a big difference. “Students will actually be more alert and awake,” she said, “They’ll spend less time working on their homework. They’re more efficient -- not forgetting, not drowsy, not going home and taking a nap.” 

Although they will get out of school later, she said, they may be done with the day’s work earlier. 

“What bothers me most as a father,” said Donovan, who has a 6th and 8th grader at home, “Is that the majority of kids get out at 2:10. They are raising themselves until both parents get home.” 

It would be nice to think they’re going home to do their homework, he said, but that’s not the case with all teens. “They’re smoking pot, having sex … doing things they shouldn’t be doing.” 

“Were limping along saying everything’s OK,” Ibrahim said, “But everything’s not OK.”


- School Start Times Under Review for Howard County Schools

- How Early is Too Early to Head to Class?

- POLL: Should Howard County Schools Start Later?

This article has been updated to include more recent guidelines from the CDC. 

NoPower February 28, 2013 at 11:26 AM
thanks for the heads p maribel. I'll make sure to call to tell them to stop babying this new generation.
Joanne Brazinski March 03, 2013 at 05:02 PM
Thank you, Brook, for trying to steer the conversation back to fact vs. opinion. It is so much easier for people to claim their experience is universally true, but decisions should be made on evidence. I agree, the evidence supports medical fact that teenagers are not just young adults; they have different physical needs because they are not done growing, even if they seem adult-sized. If a simple thing like a half-hour later start time would help them, we owe it to them to seriously consider it. A knee-jerk "we've always done it this way" does not help anyone.
Max March 04, 2013 at 06:58 AM
Here's an opinion from a modern 15 year old teenager: school is starting too early. I choose to go to bed around 10-11PM, but I won't fall asleep until 12-1, sometimes even 2. What am I doing? Laying in bed, trying to fall asleep, Not playing games or watching videos or texting friends on my laptop/smartphone. Going to bed early simply doesn't work. Because I need to leave for the bus at 6:30 for a school starting at 7:25 that takes 10 minutes to drive to, I wake up at 5:30. WIth that being too early, I oversleep 30mins. and cut breakfast. I get home around 2:30 after school. By 4:30, I'm passed out due to exhaustion. I'm not purposely trying to sleep. Without anyone or anything to wake me up, I wake up from my nap around 8PM to do my homework and eat dinner, then go back to bed and attempt to fall asleep, which, once again, doesn't occur until after several hours of laying in bed. I've made another observation. After a 6 hour shift on Saturday, I can fall asleep at 11PM and wake wake up at 8AM with ease. In the morning, I feel very refreshed, a feeling I never get on a school morning. "Afterschool sports!" - also has kids at school at 5AM for physical activity. They're up by 4:30 "Drugs/Sex!" - also occurs AT SCHOOL "Younger siblings!" teach them to watch themselves "Babied" - Because bullying/family issues/eating disorders is worse than ever "Work world" - College classes generally start around 10AM "I could do it" teen life has changed since you were 16
riverhill highschooler April 08, 2013 at 03:25 AM
as a highschooler of riverhill highschool in Howard county, I think the main problem is the cirriculum overload. I try to sleep earlier when I can, but there is just too much homework. it's all I do when I come home from school is homework and studying. several of my friends and me have had breakdowns from the amount of work they give us at school and at home. Changing the school time may work but the main problem is the homework they assign that make the students, who put schoolwork first, stay up extremely late. also, to the parents who have Teen in highschool, don't force us to sleep earlier because sometimes it's required for us to stay up all night to do schoolwork.
Terri McCulley Hicks April 08, 2013 at 06:14 PM
Well Played and Well thought out point, Riverhill High Schooler!!! lol I give you credit for posting this comment. But your Post to reduce homework is just proof Howard County really needs to step up thier game on English and Grammer. Don't know what grade you're in but Good Luck with the rest of your school years and/or college. :)


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