February 14, 2005
High school senior Taylor Kessinger, 18, frequently falls asleep in class.
"Usually, for the first part of the day I’m in this delirium where I don’t know what’s going on," Kessinger said.
But the Chandler High School student body vice president is no slouch as a student. He is ranked second in his class, has mastered calculus and was named this month as a National Merit Scholar finalist.
Sleep disorder experts, armed with piles of new research, say the problem is not with Kessinger or any of his adolescent peers who battle daytime drowsiness. They insist the problem is with high school administrators who schedule classes as early as 6:30 a.m. — despite the biological clocks inside teens that inhibit early morning learning.
"They are sleep-deprived," said Jon Ruzi, medical director at the Scottsdale Healthcare Sleep Disorder Center. "Their bodies are biologically programmed to go to bed later and wake up later, but high schools don’t allow that."
HIGH SCHOOL START TIMES
Chandler High School starts its first-period classes at 7:35 a.m. But Kessinger and many other students stumble into voluntary "zero hour" at 6:40 a.m.
Amber Hartrick, 18, Chandler High’s student body historian, wakes up at 5 a.m. to prepare for "zero hour" statistics. She said the early class is a trade-off she had to make so she could take cheerleading and student council all four years in high school.
Tardy bells ring even earlier at other East Valley high schools.
First-period starting times range from 7:25 a.m. in Apache Junction to 8:30 a.m. at Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee Foothills and Higley High School in Gilbert.
Terry Perkins, a 15-yearold sophomore at Tempe’s McClintock High School, said he wakes up about 6:20 a.m. to make his first-period class at 7:45 a.m.
"I sometimes hit the snooze button," Perkins said. "But usually I jump up and get in the shower to wake up."
Britton Gouch, a sprinter on Chandler High’s track team, skips "zero hour" but said he still struggles to stay awake in his first-period class and after lunch — when he has a full stomach.
The 18-year-old senior goes from track practice to a part-time job at an Ahwatukee Foothills sushi bar, where he frequently works until 11 p.m. He said he usually goes to bed about midnight and wakes up at 6:30 or 7 a.m.
"I shower at night and then bounce out of bed in the morning so I can get to school," he said.
Sleep studies indicate that Gouch, if typical for his age group, would function best with about nine or 10 hours of sleep each night. Researchers say students who sleep less, such as Gouch, accumulate a "sleep debt" that they must often repay on the weekends.
Chandler High math teacher Michelle Swartz said students come to her firstperiod geometry class with low energy. She said they are calm and quiet — and some are habitually tardy.
By midmorning, everything changes.
"Those later classes are much more interactive with the lessons," she said. "They are more alert, they are quicker and they ask a lot more questions."
Chandler High biology teacher Craig Menzel agreed. He said some students stay up later than they need to and contribute to their own sleep deprivation, but most of the blame relates to chemical changes in the teenage body.
"Teens are better suited to start later and end later," he said. "At 7:35, at least half the kids have trouble being fully engaged."
Fountain Hills High School principal Patrick Sweeney said he has read the sleep research, but he does not believe slight adjustments to the schedule would boost student performance in any significant way.
He said students sometimes complain about his school’s 7:30 a.m. start time, but they also enjoy getting out of school at 2:08 p.m.
"You’d probably have to start at noon or 11:30 for some of these guys," Sweeney said.
But Marcia Stein, a spokeswoman for the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C., said schools would see benefits if they gave students just 30 minutes of additional sleep each day.
"Something is better than nothing," she said.
Scottsdale sleep researcher Ruzi said the ideal start time for high school — based strictly on adolescent sleep studies — would be about 9 a.m.
But high school administrators said sleep research is just one factor they must consider when creating dailyschedules.
The Dysart Unified School District in the West Valley discovered this in 2001.
Former Dysart Superintendent Margo Olivares-Seck, who now leads the Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix, said Dysart high schools experimented with later start times four years ago but quickly discovered complications with transportation and after-school sports.
"We did have unintended outcomes, and after one year we gave up," she said.
A committee that the Paradise Valley Unified School District assembled in November to explore later start times has tried to learn from Dysart’s experience. The panel of parents, teachers and administrators has studied several potential side effects that might result from delaying high school start times past 7:30 a.m.
Issues discussed include:
• Transportation — Districts must stagger school start times so that one school bus can make multiple runs. Later high school start times would either require the purchase of additional buses or earlier elementary school start times. Even if the district could afford additional buses, finding enough drivers would also be a problem.
• Sports — Many afterschool activities rely on daylight hours. Later start times might limit practice time and complicate game scheduling with other schools.
• Safety — If elementary school students were bused earlier in the morning, some might have to wait in the dark at their bus stops.
National Sleep Foundation program director Pat Britz said cost-effective solutions can usually be found for these problems.
"What’s more important?" Britz said. "The health and education of the kids, or those other issues?"
But some teachers at Horizon High School in the Paradise Valley district reject Britz’s assessment.
Horizon science teacher Pat Mahaffey said adolescents have been required to function early in the morning for centuries. He said farming families never let their teenagers sleep until 9 a.m., and society has survived.
"If it had to do with the biological clock, then we all would have starved," he said.
Tips for teens
• Learn how much sleep you need to function at your best — and strive to get it every night.
• Keep consistency in mind. Establish a bedtime schedule and maintain it as much as possible on weekends and vacations.
• Get into bright light as soon as possible in the morning, but avoid it in the evening. Light signals to the brain when it should wake up and when it should sleep.
• Stay away from caffeinated beverages after lunch. Avoid alcohol and stimulants such as nicotine.
• Relax before going to bed. Avoid heavy reading, studying and computer games within one hour of going to bed.
Source: National Sleep Foundation
For updates on the school start time committee in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, visit
epage.pvusd.k12.az.us/siteweb and click on "Committees"