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Freshman to school board: Start school later so kids get more sleep

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 15 2014 07:30:30 AM CDT
Updated On: Apr 15 2014 09:29:08 PM CDT

A Lehigh County high school student wants to shake up her district's daily schedule.

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. -

Students at Southern Lehigh High School should not have to start school until 8:45 a.m. so they can get more sleep, a high school freshman told the school board Monday night.

Fourteen-year-old Alexandra Curtis argued that allowing sleep-deprived high school students start more than an hour later would improve their grades – including SAT scores -- and much more.

She maintains getting more sleep reduces drop-out rates, fights, car accidents, substance abuse, even depression and suicidal thoughts among teens.

“Researchers have found that most students earned higher grades in classes that started later in the day, because the students were more alert,” she told the school board.

She also said student athletes perform better, with improved coordination and endurance, if they get more sleep.

Alexandra recommended Southern Lehigh School District should reverse its daily schedules, so both middle and high school students start school at 8:45 a.m., but elementary and intermediate students begin at 7:40 a.m.

The district’s elementary and intermediate schools are for kindergarten through 6th grade students, the middle school is for 7th and 8th graders and the high school is for 9th through 12th graders.

Alexandra said younger children are more likely to wake up earlier.

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Because they barely have any homework, she argued, it’s also easier for them to go to bed earlier. She added there would be a benefit for working parents: they might not have to pay for morning day care if their children start school earlier.

“The results are clear,” Alexandra told the board. “Southern Lehigh should follow in the footsteps of schools from 41 different states by switching the high school and middle school start time with the elementary and intermediate schools.

“This will benefit Southern Lehigh students and families by increasing their success in school and sports and by improving their safety.”

While school board members and district administrators were less than enthusiastic in their immediate response to her proposal, Alexandra was not discouraged.

She said the board’s response was “about what I expected. I realize this is not something that would happen right away.” In fact, she predicted it might take years to get the board’s support.

Beverly and Andrew Curtis, Alexandra’s parents, and her younger brother Drew attended the school board meeting to support her.

"I really hope the school board takes her suggestion seriously, and looks at the effects of insufficient sleep and the feasibility of a later start time," said her mom after the meeting.

Alexandra said teenagers needs 9-10 hours of sleep every night, but the average high school senior only sleeps 6.5 hours.

“I definitely do not get enough sleep,” she admitted after the board meeting. She said high school starts at 7:40 a.m. and her school bus arrives at 6:58 a.m.

She typically gets seven hours of sleep a night “unless I have a lot of homework and tests, in which case it can be six or even five hours.”

Alexandra cited several studies to back up her conclusions, including research done by Columbia University, Brookings Institution and the National Sleep Foundation.

After the student’s presentation, school board president Corinne Gunkle said district superintendent Leah Christman already had circulated one of those studies to the school board.

Gunkle also noted Quakertown Community School District plans to do the
opposite: its high school students will start school earlier because too many student athletes were leaving school early for sports and losing too much classroom instructional time.

Southern Lehigh’s superintendent said there has not been any discussion about changing school start times by her district’s administrators.

Gunkle suggested issues raised by Alexandra be referred to the board’s education committee to look into, but it was not clear that is going to happen.

“This is a non-starter for one school to do in isolation,” said school board member Thomas McLoughlin, who serves on that education committee.

McLoughlin said “at a minimum” it has to be done by all schools participating in the same athletic league.

McLoughlin also said Alexandra is right and the points she raised are valid, based on “accumulating evidence.”

But he repeated it’s not something Southern Lehigh could do in isolation regardless of the opinion of the school board’s education committee.

Alexandra told the board high schools that start classes later in the morning have seen increased participation in sports and improved performance by their sports teams.

She said she realizes sports is a big part of Southern Lehigh’s culture, but suggested practice times can either start later or be held in the mornings before school starts. She also suggested student athletes be scheduled for study hall as their last class of the day during their sports seasons.

It’s not just an issue of high school athletics, said high school principal Christine Siegfried. “There are academic reasons as well.”

For example, Siegfried said such a change would impact schedules of Southern Lehigh students who attend Lehigh Career & Technical Institute.

She indicated changing school hours would have to be done by all nine public school districts in Lehigh County.

McLoughlin said the board’s education committee could investigate the matter and encourage other school districts to look into it.

“All the evidence backs up my proposal,” said Alexandra after the meeting. “This is a growing movement across the nation and I know it is just a matter of time before it is brought up again.”

Information she provided to the board before she spoke cites a National Sleep Institute study that found teenagers’ brains do not start releasing melatonin, the sleep hormone, until about 11 p.m. but continue producing it until well after sunrise. That’s why teens are often barely alert and want to fall back to sleep before 8 a.m.

“There is research that supports ‘the student clock’ so to speak,” confirmed the superintendent after the board meeting. “But changing a school district’s start time is not an easy venture.”

Just one example cited by Christman is that student athletes sometimes have to leave school by 2 or 2:15 p.m. to travel to “away games.” If school started later, she said, they would lose even more academic time – or all competing teams would have to agree to start games later.

The board presentation was not some academic exercise for Alexandra.

She said she was inspired to make it by a book titled “Dreamland; An Adventure in the Strange Science of Sleep,” written by David K. Randall. “I did not do this as a class assignment.”

The teenager is on Southern Lehigh’s speech and debate team and was one of 13 winning team members honored by the school board at the start of its meeting.

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Most of her teammates hung around to hear her presentation to the board. They vigorously applauded her even before she spoke.

Other business

Also during the board meeting, Gunkle announced the retirements of three long-time district employees:

• Carol Mickley, principal of Lower Milford Elementary School, who is
retiring in August. She has served the district for 35 years.

• Caroline Frantz, library secretary at Liberty Bell Elementary
School, who is retiring July 1. She is a district employee for 25 years.

• Deborah Galle, an administrative assistant in the district’s
administration office, who is retiring June 30. She has been employed at Southern Lehigh for 27 years.