Cover Story - January 20, 2010

Get some sleep!

High school district gets serious about student sleep habits

by Dave Boyce

Like it or not, we live according to the laws of nature, and that can be inconvenient. How nice it would be to convert lead into gold, or build a machine that puts to good use all of the energy fed into it, or travel to some time other than the present moment.

Or work and play 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have a 24/7 culture. Why can't we adjust and live our lives that way?

Inconveniently, nature allots us around 16 hours of wakefulness. Adults need less as they age, and some make do with less their whole lives. But infants need more, as do teenagers, it turns out. And they, in particular, can be forgiven for fighting this mandate of nature.

Squeezing more into their days is tempting. Hormone-related turmoil aside, high school students learn new material all day long and have 15 to 20 hours of homework every week. They may have part-time jobs and/or responsibilities at home. Facebook is always on, and there is socializing in person, a large and important part of their lives. Every day presents novel opportunities and experiences as they move along toward adulthood.

Research has shown that the human biological clock, during the teen years, adjusts its rhythm. For high school students, the upshot is that they need 9 to 10 hours of sleep to be normally alert and effective at school and in extracurricular activities.

With these facts in mind, the governing board of the Sequoia Union High School District is looking into making it easier for students to get adequate sleep. A new policy, possibly in place for the start of the school year in August, could require Woodside, Menlo-Atherton and the other two comprehensive high schools in the district to start the official school day around 8:30 a.m. — 30 to 40 minutes later than the current start.

The board, at its Dec. 16 meeting, heard an informational presentation on teen sleep needs by Mark R. Rosekind, president of Cupertino-based Alertness Solutions. The for-profit company offers software and services for "anyone challenged by around-the-clock operations, time-zone changes or altered shift schedules," according to the company Web site.

A staff recommendation on a new policy should be ready this month, Superintendent Pat Gemma told the board.

Woodside High is way ahead of the game on this one, and the research on teen sleep was a big part of the decision, Principal David Reilly said in an interview. Since the spring of 2009, Woodside's school day has started with second period (9:05 a.m.) for 60 percent of students. The other 40 percent need remedial work in math and English and have a longer day. They start at 8 a.m.

At M-A, the day still starts at 7:50 a.m. for most students, though the school has upper-class "sleep ambassadors" to advise freshmen on the sleep's importance and strategies to avoid first-period classes. But student participation is all voluntary.

A committee is investigating alternatives at M-A that would include a later start, but nothing would change until the fall, Principal Matthew Zito told The Almanac.

The committee has looked at 30 Bay Area schools "to try to get the very best bell schedule for the school," Mr. Zito said.

Revising a school's "bell schedule" is a big deal. Teachers, staff, students and parents all have a stake in the existing patterns, and many are skeptical.

Resistance is futile

Teachers and staff have routines they'd apparently rather not disturb. At M-A, 66 percent are opposed to a bell schedule that would have classes start at 8:30 or later, Mr. Zito said.

Latin teacher Madeleine Besse, whose class starts at 7:50, told The Almanac that she likes the current schedule for its opportunities for extracurricular activities in the afternoon.

Starting early is part of the culture at the 57-year-old school, but a new bell schedule is coming, Mr. Zito said. "People don't always like change," he said, but the faculty and staff "are good soldiers. When the decision is made, they'll all support it."

In a Woodside High a referendum, teachers and staff voted 56 percent to 46 percent in favor of a later start, a margin that Mr. Reilly called "very narrow," but good enough to move on.

The change came after much consideration by the school's shared-decision-making council, a group of staff, teachers, parents and students. The scientific research "kind of put us over the top," Mr. Reilly said.

"I thought it was best for students. I thought there was just too much to gain," he added. "We are a student-centered school. This is one of those decisions where that student-driven philosophy was put into motion."

That's an adult talking. Woodside sophomore Brian Rodriguez said he "liked last year's schedule better. If you didn't have a free period, you got to leave early."

Valeria, a sophomore, said she comes in at 8 for remedial classes, but likes the across-the-board 9:05 start on Mondays. She can stay in bed until 7:20 rather the usual 6 a.m.

Senior class president Gracie Walovich said she used to like the 8 o'clock start for routine classes like safety education. "Actually, I was very opposed to the (changed) schedule, but I do like it now," she added.

At M-A, sophomore Hannah Schneider said she was "kind of against" a later start because it deprives her of an hour of freedom in the afternoon. Classmate Roger Upton agreed. "I don't want to start school later. I'd rather get out earlier and do things in the afternoon," he said.

Student opposition should give the district pause, M-A junior Evan Weiner told the district governing board on Dec. 16. Evan, the board's student liaison, cited an online poll at M-A in which he said that 65 percent of participants opposed a later start. He advised the board not to "bite off more than we can chew."

Slow but steady

The district will likely take months to make a decision, and the board sounded sympathetic to pleas from the principals of Sequoia and Carlmont high schools to let Woodside and M-A blaze a trail.

Board members will be watching, too.

"We shouldn't do things hastily" and students should be consulted, Lorraine Rumley noted. They may have ideas on the proper length for breaks. A conversation on how they stress themselves with extracurricular activities could be in order. "It's a whole culture of excellence, not just in academics but in outside activities," she said.

Board member Chris Thomsen said he supported later starts "in the strongest way" and agreed that workload and stress are important factors. He took a moment to commend Mr. Reilly on his initiative. "I want to recognize principals who are innovative and who want to take that risk."

Woodside's progress and M-A's initiative will be useful should Sequoia and Carlmont choose to wait, board member Alan Sarver said.

Focus on academics

When the 2:10 bell at Woodside High sounded the end of the sixth period in January 2009, it marked the end of the school day for the 60 percent of students who started early and got out early — and the evaporation of the academic atmosphere for seventh-period students still in class.

For them, with their high-spirited peers passing by outside, concentration could be elusive. Some just gave in and cut the class to be with their friends, Mr. Reilly, the principal, said. "It was very, very difficult to maintain a learning environment."

With the whole school now in class for the seventh period, "the campus is really a lot quieter," Mr. Reilly said.

Anecdotally, Mr. Reilly said he's heard that students' sleep habits have changed to the extent that they get up later, and that a few use the extra time to skateboard or bike to school.

If the change is having a positive effect on grades, the evidence could show up later this year, he said.

Teachers, some still grumpy over the change, report less tardiness and kids who "just seem more alert," he said.

End-of-school traffic snarled the first day or so, but now moves well with direction from campus aides, he said.

Issues for athletes

Athletic participation is a factor for that 40 percent of Woodside High kids who need remedial work, Mr. Reilly said. "It pains me to have to have them come in early," he said, but otherwise they don't play.

Earning the right to play sports is big, but getting players to games and having games start at times agreeable to both teams is bigger. The bell schedule is critical.

If students at School A get out at 3:10 and take a school bus home, and there's a 3 p.m. football game 30 miles away at School B, where kids get out at 2:10, are there buses available for players and equipment?

If the four Sequoia district schools have bell schedules different from the other 13 schools in the Peninsula Athletic League (PAL), how does that work?

What about athletes with seventh-period classes?

The principals seemed to agree on a suggestion that all four schools write a letter to the PAL.

Board member Olivia Martinez suggested that "this might be an opportunity to reassert the validity of the idea that school is the primary occupation of students."

Mr. Reilly is of the view that games should not start while any class is in session, but Woodside's new schedule does give athletes 20 minutes in seventh period to turn in homework and get assignments.

"The (district) principals ... can certainly bring forth recommendations that they would like to see implemented," PAL Commissioner Terry Stogner said in an e-mail. "The only argument against overall change in the past has been the busing issue."

"Any school can move its home games to a later time if the other school agrees," he said. That's a big if.

"I believe the league is moving in the direction of later athletic contests, we just haven't made it a league policy to blanket all sports," he added.


Posted by Kristin Duriseti, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm

This is certainly an important topic, and I am grateful that our administrators, teachers, parents and students are taking up the discussion, given the overwhelming evidence in support of teenagers getting more sleep. I am concerned that any proposal to start the regular school day later will imply that students carrying an extra class will be forced to start their day even earlier. Although the percentage of students taking 7 classes a semester may be small, these students absolutely need adequate sleep to meet the additional demands. Please consider that their needs shouldn't be compromised.

Posted by NotAntiUnion....but..., a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 19, 2010 at 9:34 pm

I wonder to what degree teacher's unions play into the decision to still maintain early start times for kids with extra classes. Starting later and ending later means losing the opportunity for early exits from campus for teachers. I don't begrudge them their free time, but the early start and early end along with a 10 to 12 week summer vacation is an anachronism from an agrarian society. Most of our kids don't go home and take care of the chickens or bring the animals in from pasture. Urban settings are suited to more school time with a later start, more "homework" during school hours, and less homework outside of school. Not all time at school needs to be supervised by highly trained teachers.

Posted by Men/Ath/Port/Wood, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 20, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Brief thoughts: 1) Worst case is 20 hrs a week? That's 2 hrs a night and 10 on weekends. So? 2) Plus summers off, to travel to Europe on the 'rents' dime, or the taxpayers' if from EPA. 3) What are they going to do about 8 AM college classes (Since Chris Thomsen says they all have to go...)? Or are they all planning to be "poets?" 4) "Studies show" that most kids around here who get actual jobs, do so in order to waste even more time buying stuff they don't need. 5) There are entire classes in "safety education?" As in not freezing the eggs before throwing them? Or ducking? 6) "Facebook" is not "always on;" it's on when you turn it on. 7) If they need more social time, form study groups, already. (Then they can "Twitter" about it.) 8) Still, I'm happy to blame anything on the Unions...

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