Article: Wiped Out: Early School Start Times And Boston’s Epidemic Of Exhausted Students

[As happens in opinion pieces, this isn’t the tightest writing I’ve shared with you. But Bennett makes a good point — sleep is key. I know personally I’m not a happy camper when I don’t get enough. And I know that my students are often exhausted. They do wake up between 5 and 6 to get to school on time. As I’ve mentioned, some come from very far away. It seems the solution for high schools is later start times (which would also help resolve the twin problem of having thousands of students done with school so early that the afternoon yawns out in front of them, lacking structure). But pause and consider her assertions of sleep as an issue of equity. Nowhere is this more obvious than METCO, the voluntary suburban desegregation plan that busses students of color from Boston to the suburbs. If you’re traveling an hour to get to school and all the white kids traveled 15 mins….? What would happen if the system were reversed? What pressure would be placed on districts, state, and federal lawmakers (for later start times, for real integration policies, for other forms of educational equity)?]

Wiped Out: Early School Start Times And Boston’s Epidemic Of Exhausted Students

Wed, Apr 20, 2016


The iPhone trills. It’s 5:15 am. Maybe my children will drink in those last 15 minutes before their official wake time. Or maybe the whole house will be startled awake by the alarm or the dog or the toilet’s flush. If so, that will be 15 precious minutes, lost.

My three children fight for their sleep. They refuse to climb out of bed and search for pants, socks and uniform shirts, to put their lunches in their backpacks, to pack a book for the 45-minute bus ride. They are not sick, but they are tired. Tired of this routine, as thousands of children — and their parents — in the Boston public school system are.

In Boston, the history and unintended consequences of segregated schools haunt both the city and the schools in surprising ways, like stealing children’s sleep. Busing became the key to desegregation, and for more than 40 years, children have traversed this sprawling, historic city in long yellow buses built for streets much wider than ours. The city’s ensuing traffic issues led to staggered start times in public schools, ranging from 7:15 to 9:20 a.m.

{Deborah J. Bennett: “Thousands of teens who live nowhere near their school rise as early as 5:30 in the morning in order to get to school on time.” (Lily Monster/Flickr)}

With calls to shrink the sprawling zones that determined school choice, as well as pressure to reduce busing costs, the Boston Public Schools (BPS) developed a kindergarten through sixth-grade “home-based school choice” assignment process in 2013 that uses an algorithm developed by an MIT student. This system aims to limit the distance children travel to schools, but if they are expected to have pencil in hand by 7:15, children are rising early no matter how long their commute.

Here’s the problem with denying children the sleep they need: They don’t learn as well when they are tired. Grades are not the only thing to suffer — students experience anxiety, depression, poor concentration and behavioral problems. What’s more, the latest researchon teenagers’ sleep patterns suggests that, as puberty begins, their circadian rhythms shift to a “sleep phase delay,” which means they naturally fall asleep as late as 10:00 and 11:00 at night, even as their need for up to nine hours of sleep remains the same.

So consider the next step in the BPS schooling ladder: high school. For students who hope to attend one of the city’s three sought-after exam schools, there is no home-based placement algorithm. The start times for these schools, scattered across the city, are all before 8:00 in the morning. That means that thousands of teens who live nowhere near their school rise as early as 5:30 in the morning in order to get to school on time. Our neighbors’ kids barely have time to grab a cereal bar on their way out the door before they board one or more MBTA buses to get to school, where they toss their backpacks and lunch in a locker before racing to Algebra at 7:20.

While parents at one exam school in Boston tried, unsuccessfully, to have their start time changed, parents and school administrators from middle class suburban districts outside of Boston are having more success in doing so. Which leads us to a compelling piece of research that suggests that there is a class and racial divide when it comes to sleep. As one article puts it, “sleep has its own caste system.”

Those who are lower on the socioeconomic scale get less sleep and have lower quality sleep when they get it. The causes? Multiple jobs, longer commutes, stress about paying the bills, and living in loud, unsafe communities where it can be hard to find that cool, quiet, dark cocoon that researchers say leads to optimal sleep. People who are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation are not just fatigued. Researchers now knowthat people are sick and dying from the resulting health complications: obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

While the research has focused primarily on working adults, children experience the same poor sleep conditions as their parents. Children in Boston are subjected to the added stress and sensory input of long commutes on subways and buses, which can leave themunfocused, anxious and overwhelmed.

Most people are well aware of the inequities between urban and suburban schools — per pupil spending, school facilities and teacher-to-student ratios. However, we must consider more basic needs. Are children getting good nutrition? Are they safe, loved and nurtured at home and at school? And are they getting enough sleep?

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