The city of Miami and the Miami-Dade public school system has been paying careful attention to the most recent data on the impact of sleep deprivation on high schoolers’ ability to learn, and as a result they may be changing their classroom hours. If they decide to pursue the course of action, the school district will become one of the pioneering few that have decided to allow science to trump tradition in determining when morning classes begin.
The change may come as early as this September, and that’s not a moment too soon for students who are currently waking up as early as 5:00 a.m. in order to arrive at school on time for a 7:20 a.m. start. The school district has only just begun investigating the possibility, and as a result rather than making a widely applied overhaul they may select just a few of their high schools to engage in a pilot program. The delay – or slow rollout – is not a result of anybody questioning the science behind the change … there is overwhelming evidence showing that the teen brain needs more sleep than the existing schedule allows for. The problem is with the impact that the change makes on a number of other areas of school life.
The pilot program is being implemented and directed by Luis Diaz, and he points out the vast number of moving parts that come into play. Outdoor sporting activities that get pushed later into the day may require lighted fields if they get pushed into times of darkness. Bus schedules need to work for all of the schools, as current schedules stagger bus times to get elementary, middle school and high school students where they need to be using the existing inventory of buses. Adult education programs that begin at the end of the school day would be pushed later, and the change in schedule could also affect when students can be picked up after school by working parents.
“If it’s feasible and can work, the school has buy-in and it’s something the community believes in, it’s something we would push for, 100 percent. We want to make sure that if the change takes place it won’t have any distracting factors to schools that are operating; that it’ll have a positive impact on the schools that are involved.”
So far Luiz’s efforts have resulted in a poll being taken of students and staff members from each of the existing high schools that are under consideration for participation. The results of those surveys will be carefully assessed and taken into account along with the existing science behind making the shift. Albert Ramos, the co-director of the Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Miami Medical School and assistant professor of clinical neurology, explains that though everybody is familiar with the fact that teens like to stay up late, few realize that there is biology involved in both that and the fact that they need more sleep. “Anywhere from seven to sixteen percent of teens have delayed sleep phase syndrome, meaning their internal clock makes them ready to go to bed only at late hours. At minimum, teens require more than nine hours of sleep – adults need seven – but some require up to 12 hours. The problem can be exacerbated by the use of computers and smartphones before bedtime.”
When you look at all of those factors taken together, Ramos says, “We can assume most adolescents are sleep deprived when they go to school.” Studies have shown that sleep deprivation is directly associated with students’ inability to concentrate and pay attention, as well as with poor scholastic performance, bad moods, and the use of stimulants like caffeine. Even the ride to school can be impacted when sleepy students are behind the wheel.
“There’s evidence that by imposing our schedules upon adolescents we may actually be endangering them to some extent. I’ve seen patients in high school and their parents tell me that first and second periods are useless for them. They don’t pay attention at all, they sleep through it – and these are good students.”
So far, the idea of starting the high school day later has taken hold in 42 states. Minnesota, California and North Carolina are among the most recent to push the class hours back, and all have pointed to the negative impacts of sleep deprivation on scholastic outcomes as the reason why. The idea is currently being considered by districts in Maryland and Virginia, as well as by Miami-Dade.
While the decision in Maryland has been months in the making, Miami may make the change as soon as this school year, though it remains unclear exactly what time school would start if the change is made. Most of the schools that have instituted later start times have change from between 8:00 a.m. and as late as noon. The decision will be made by the superintendent and the school’s top leadership, and is still nowhere near a sure thing. There are those who are critical of the idea, with many voicing concerns about the change necessitating cuts in time for afterschool extracurricular activities, and insisting that there is no need to change what has been in place for years. Proponents argue that though tradition has its place, a 2011 Brookings Institute report on the subject examined the ratio of benefits to costs at nine to one in favor of having students get the rest that their bodies need.
If Miami-Dade does make the change, it is certain that the move and its impact will be closely watched by school districts across the country. As the country’s fourth largest school district, the results of a change like this will be relatively straightforward to gauge. Other school districts that have changed to later time have reported increased testing scores, higher GPAs, fewer incidents of violence and absenteeism, and other positive results.