AUGUSTA — Cony High School sophomore Shaun Gallagher has had two years to adjust to starting school at 7:10 a.m.

But he’s not there yet.

“Sometimes I’ll just randomly have lots of energy, but some days I’m really sluggish and not really awake until 10:30,” he said.

Although they’re twins, Shaun’s brother, Noah, said he’s a morning person and feels ready to go at the first bell. “But I know that a lot of my friends complain about the schedule still,” Noah said.

Noah Gallagher is probably an anomaly among teenagers, but Cony’s schedule is hardly unique in expecting students to learn well before 8 a.m. Most area high schools start classes at times that sleep experts say run counter to adolescent biology.

“Their little brains are still asleep at eight o’clock in the morning, but most of them are sitting in a classroom for an hour,” said Martine Eon, interim practice manager at the Maine Sleep Institute, which is an 8-bed center at Maine Medical Center in Portland that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of sleeping disorders.

School schedules tend to be based on non-academic factors such as sports and extracurricular activities, transportation arrangements and parents’ desire to see children off to school before work or have older children home in the afternoon to supervise younger siblings.

 Cony Middle School began classes at 8:20 a.m. last year, but has shifted to 7:10 a.m. to coordinate with the high school, which is in the same building. Some teachers have classes in both schools, and Principal Jim Anastasio said the faculty requested the change.

“We found that with kids on two different schedules and teachers on two different schedules it never allowed reasonable professional development to take place,” Anastasio said. “Some teachers came in earlier than others, some teachers left earlier than others. It was really disjointed.”

Cony has the earliest start in central Maine, but most high schools also begin the day before 8 a.m. Maranacook High School in Readfield starts at 8, and Skowhegan Area High School at 8:15.

No earlier than 8:15

A hormone called melatonin maintains humans’ internal daily clock or circadian rhythm. Darkness triggers the release of melatonin in the brain, making young children feel sleepy as early as 7 p.m. and adults at about 9 p.m.

Teenagers, however, don’t feel its effects until about 11 p.m., and they need at least nine hours of sleep, Eon said.

When Minneapolis public schools shifted high school starts from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., teachers in suburban schools noted less tardiness and fewer disciplinary problems. Massachusetts middle schools showed similar results in a different study, and one Kentucky county had fewer car crashes when high schools started an hour later.

Finley Edwards, a visiting assistant professor of economics at Colby College, studied middle schools in Wake County, N.C., and found that starting at 8:30 rather than 7:30 increased standardized test scores by at least 2 percentage points in math and 1 point in reading. The largest improvements were among students with below-average test scores.

Edwards said he would expect to see similar effects in Maine and recommends that school start no earlier than 8:15 or 8:30.

“I think the reason why so many schools have moved to starting earlier is to save money on transportation costs,” he said. “But the money saved is completely wiped out in terms of the cost of student performance that we’re losing by starting schools early.”

Maranacook Community High School Principal Carol Fritz agreed that transportation determines school schedules.

“They have nothing to do with the kids,” Fritz said. “They have to do with bus schedules. So lots of high schools start earlier than elementary schools because the buses will run and pick up the high school kids, and then they’ll run again and get the elementary kids.”

Few school districts own enough buses to get everyone to school at the same time. Elementary schools almost always start last because parents do not want young children waiting for the bus in darkness during winter, and it reduces the amount of time between school dismissal and parents getting off from work.

Eon said she would recommend flipping the schedule so elementary school students start first.
“They don’t have the same circadian rhythm, so they can definitely absorb getting up earlier, much easier than teenagers,” she said.

Student patterns

Winthrop Grade School actually is starting later than it did two years ago, at 8:40 a.m., rather than 8:10. The school board made the change last year after deciding to split a single bus run for all students, kindergarten through 12th grade, in two.

Principal Jeff Ladd said his young students are adaptive.

“I don’t think that it has any real impact one way or the other, for our students,” Ladd said.
He said Winthrop school leaders are aware of the research about adolescent biology, but making changes is complicated.

“We had that discussion here, we would have to liked to have been able to reverse our schedules and follow that research, but there’s difficulty that’s created through athletic activities and sports,” Ladd said. “A single school, I don’t think, could fight that battle. It would have to be the whole state.”

Anastasio acknowledged the research about school start times, but said it played out differently at Cony several years ago when classes started later.

“It may have been better for some students, but from a data standpoint it was not better for us,” Anastasio said. “Our attendance did not improve, our tardies did not improve. It tends to be that kids who are late at 7:10 are also late at 8:30. It’s more about their pattern than it is about the time.”

Anastasio said that in addition to improving teacher coordination, aligning the middle and high school schedules will allow middle school students who want a challenge to take high school classes.
The transition has gone well so far, he said.

“Students are really resilient, and they do react to whatever the situation is quite well,” Anastasio said.

Other factors

Augusta resident Camille Grover said Cony’s start time is too early for her ninth-grade daughter.
“It’s a long day,” Grover said. “She gets up at 5:30. When we leave here, she goes home and goes to sleep.”

Cony seventh grader Haley Gagne said she also naps after getting out of school. She called her new 7:10 start time hard and tiring, but said she would not want to start later because she likes getting home early.

Gardiner Area High School senior Morgan Stevens said she thinks her school’s 7:30 a.m. start is too early.

“Even if we just started at eight, it might work better because we’d be more awake,” Stevens said. “We shouldn’t be there that early.”

On the other hand, getting out of school at 1:55 p.m. makes it possible for Stevens to make it to her day care job at 3 p.m.

While endorsing high school start times between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., Eon said school schedules are not the only problem. In talking with teenagers who come into the sleep institute, she finds that many of them have computers, TVs and other technology in their bedrooms.

They stay up late and keep their cellphones by their beds, “texting all night long.”

Improving teens’ sleep habits needs to be a combined effort, Eon said.

“I have not read anything at all in the literature that didn’t support a later start time. I think that would be a good start,” she said. “But also as parents, we need to do our job to limit technology.”

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