As another school year is nearing its end, it seems worthwhile to reflect upon how it began: at 7:40 a.m. on Sept. 8.
For the over 17,000 students in the Rochester Public Schools system, Labor Day marks the end of summer break and the start of waking up abnormally early. However, just because this has become a tradition, it doesn't mean it's in our students' best interest. In fact, there's increasing evidence that the schedule needs a shakeup.
Sleep deprivation among teenagers has become a serious topic of discussion recently. New conversations come on the heels of a 2014 study from the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Education Improvement. They collected data from more than 9,000 students and concluded that starting school later is positively correlated with stronger academic performance.
They also found drops in major problems among teens, such as tardiness, mental illness, and car accidents. These results led the American Academy of Pediatricsto determine that middle and high schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
Why the emphasis on secondary schools? Study after study shows that a majority of adolescents don't get enough sleep. A survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundationfound that the majority of 15- to 17-year-olds reported getting less than seven hours of sleep a night. Scientists say that this is far too little for students to be at their optimal performance, both physically and mentally.
The most common objection to changing start times is that teens could just sleep earlier now. However, there are scientific reasons as to why this is flawed. Teenagers are biologically predisposed to sleeping later, with a phenomenon called sleep phase shift making them feel more awake in the late evening. Interestingly, a study conducted by Brown University found that when schools start later, students still sleep at the same time on average. The result? More sleep.
Others argue that students wouldn't have enough time for extracurriculars. However, many schools that have pushed their start time back have seen their athletic teams do better. The academy also notes that more sleep can lead to upwards of a 50 percent drop in injuries.
Furthermore, this argument presupposes that extracurricular activities take precedence over the physical and mental well-being of our students. Any school district that admits this to be true clearly must rethink its priorities.
Minnesota schools have long been used to starting after Labor Day. In fact, thanks to the strength of the tourism lobby, Minnesota is one of three states (along with Michigan and Virginia) that mandates schools must start after the first Monday in September. However, districts can, and often do, obtain a waiver to this policy.
There has been a shift across the country toward earlier start and end dates. In fact, a CNN article titled " Why August is the new September" cites how the Minneapolis school district is one of many that starts before Labor Day because the "traditional calendar no longer supports what our children need to be successful in the 21st century."
What are the benefits of moving the calendar back? The biggest is in standardized testing. Teachers have more time to work with students prior to statewide and national examinations, such as the MCA and ACT. For Advanced Placement classes, teachers often cannot finish all of the curriculum prior to the tests, which puts our students at a disadvantage. Other significant benefits are noted in closer integration to college schedules and increased value to the final month of school. Citing these reasons, schools across the state and country are shifting from tradition toward reason. In our own state, the Minnesota School Boards Associationreported that more than 75 of the 333 school districts started before Labor Day this year, up from 21 in 2003.
Edina Public Schools, regarded as one of the best districts in the state, has a model we should seek to follow. In 1996, they pushed their start times forward, hitting 8:25 a.m. for high school students well before the scientific consensus was formed. They reported a decrease in truancy, behavioral problems, and mental health issues while noting an improvement in academic performance. In 2014, they moved their first day of school before Labor Day. Citing the benefit to curriculum and testing, they have continued with this schedule.
In the city of Mayo Clinic, it's even more embarrassing that we ignore the advice of medical and academic professionals. For the sake of our students, we must make the difficult changes. Only then can our schedules make the grade.