A tired debate: When should school day start?
BY TINA AKOURIS firstname.lastname@example.org October 18, 2013 10:38PM
Updated: November 21, 2013 6:07AM
Cullen Rompa gets beat up on a pretty regular basis. When he isn’t playing football on both offense and defense for Plainfield East High School, he is trying to maintain good grades and stave off fatigue.
“If I get up around 6 (a.m.), I can’t even eat breakfast, so I get up at 5:30 and then I try to eat,” Rompa said, “but that first period (pre-calculus class) is definitely like a blur because I’m so tired.
“Everyone there sleeps, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.”
His example is not atypical, and that has education leaders — including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan — wondering if there’s not a better way to do things.
Rompa and his Plainfield East classmates start school at 7:05 a.m. and the last class is dismissed at 2:16 p.m. The start time is perhaps one of the earliest in the area, and Rompa isn’t the only one who struggles with it.
“(The teacher) tries to wake people up, but most of them don’t get up, and if they do, they’re not even awake — they’re half in and half out,” Rompa said. “People with a full night’s sleep still struggle.”
In one regard, Rompa may have it a bit easier than most. As a senior, he can leave school about noon and go home until football practice at 2:25 p.m.
Rompa said he usually eats lunch and takes a nap. But he said he sees his teammates who don’t have that luxury struggle to keep up, and they spend almost 12 hours a day at school, not leaving football practice until about 6:30 p.m.
Joliet Central High School also has an early start time: 7:20 a.m. — although it’s 8:20 for upperclassmen — and many students have to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus.
Freshman Jonathan Ortiz said he wakes up about 5:30 a.m. to be at his bus stop on time.
“I wake up at the same time every day since my body is used to it,” Ortiz said. “Even on the weekends I wake up at 8, the latest.”
One prominent bureaucrat taking up the flag for tired teenagers is Duncan, who sparked debate among educators in early September when the former head of Chicago Public Schools told National Public Radio that teenagers are not getting enough sleep and that it is a detriment to their learning.
Duncan also tweeted on Aug. 19, “Common sense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later.”
“I think it’s incumbent upon education leaders to not run school systems that work good for buses but that don’t work for students,” Duncan told NPR.
Whether school districts agree remains a question.
‘Tired all the time’
Lemont High School begins classes at 8 a.m. and dismisses its students at 2:37 p.m. But the school is also on a “block” schedule, with students taking only four classes a day. Their homework load is lighter than that of students at other schools who take six or seven classes.
Anne Marie Alwan, a Lemont senior with a busy academic and extracurricular schedule, lives just a mile from school but some days has to be in the building as early as 7 a.m. for National English Honor Society meetings. After school, Alwan has speech team practice, and sometimes rehearsal for the school musical. Alwan said she tries to spend at least three hours a night on homework.
“I have meetings in the mornings and I usually get up at 6:30, but if I have a meeting I have to be here at 7:15,” Alwan said. “I think it is hard to stay focused (later in the day) and no one is awake. I am really tired around 1:05. And first period starts at 8. I’m tired all the time.”
Joliet Central English teacher Emily Petronio said she notices that students are more fatigued after lunch — and it’s obvious.
“I tap their desk to get them to wake up, or I’ve had a couple students stand up to stay awake,” Petronio said.
Petronio said she also teaches a class at 7:20 a.m., the first of the day at Central, and students’ energy levels are low but everyone is usually awake.
“We accomplish a lot in Period 1 and no one has fallen asleep in those classes,” Petronio said.
Joliet Central has School Improvement Days twice a month where classes begin at 11:20 a.m., about four hours later than normal. Proponents of a later start time may think that this is a perfect example of how students would react to later start times, but all that really happens is that students are chattier and a bit harder to control, some say.
Central freshman Daeja Creal said she feels less tired during the late-start days.
“Since it’s such a short day I feel more awake,” Creal said. “But I do think starting (early) prepares us for the real world.”
Lemont guidance counselor Andrea Heinz is familiar with teens’ habits, not only because she works with them every day but because her son is a sophomore at Lockport High School. Heinz said her son catches a bus at 7:40 a.m.
“I would argue that after lunch they all need a nap,” Heinz said with a laugh. “Later in the afternoon they all have the same letdown. But by the time they are older, they are working in a job, and this helps them learn time-management skills.”
Lemont Supt. Mary Ticknor said changing the start time for high schools isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“There are additional things to consider,” Ticknor said. “How would a later start impact scheduling for after-school activities? Would it be feasible for students to work after school, or if getting home later after school would affect any family commitments our students may have, such as taking care of their younger siblings.”
Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 went to earlier start times in the 2011-12 school year when the district went on a triple-tier busing schedule. Buses pick up high school students first, then middle school children and finally elementary school students.
School district spokesman Thomas Hernandez said the move saved the district close to $1 million. But for students, the change was jarring.
“I remember being awake a lot during first period and now it is a struggle,” Rompa said. “When they first (changed) the time, it was intense. It was very hard to do anything.”
Heinz also noted that regarding sports schedules, if one school in a conference ends its school day at 2:30 and another is closer to 5 p.m. — because of a late start — it could cause havoc with scheduling games.
But Rompa thinks starting school later would not affect athletics much.
“It would make practice go to 7 or 7:30 but the sleep you get in the morning would make up for going later in the day,” Rompa said. “Sleep would be more important.”
Rompa’s father, Ed, thinks starting school later would benefit students in ways beyond academically.
“Because of the nature of the involvement of high school students (in extracurriculars), it behooves them to have a later start to their day since they are so busy,” Ed Rompa said. “There’s a much longer day when you have kids that are in athletics.”
Alwan thinks starting the school day later is a good idea, even though it would take some adjustment. But Alwan said a later start time doesn’t necessarily mean that teens would take advantage and get extra sleep.
“Teens aren’t going to go to bed any earlier,” Alwan said. “I can’t fall asleep earlier than 11 p.m. It’s pretty hard. And if I am doing homework, sometimes I stay up till midnight.”
The bottom line is teenagers need sleep, no matter what time the school day begins.
“Getting a lack of sleep?” Heinz said. “Teenagers are going to do that.”