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The Squeeze on Zs: Parkway Students Fatigued by Early Start Times

Parkway moved high school start times back to 7:35 a.m. Some students and sleep researchers say it's too early, but Parkway officials say the school day length puts them in a time crunch, too.

When Zack Becker fell asleep near the end of his third hour algebra and trigonometry class, it took the teacher and other students five minutes to wake him up.

This year, the  moved high school start times back from 8 a.m. last year to 7:35 a.m., subtracting precious minutes of slumber from students’ sleep schedules.

The move was recommended by the Project Parkway task force, which included parents and staff. The change move the middle school start time from 7:25 a.m.--even earlier than the current high school schedule--to 8:15 a.m.

Becker, a sophomore at Parkway North High School, is in the marching band, which meets before school. During band season, the group met at 6:30 a.m. for practice, meaning Becker had to get up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school.

“I’m averaging six hours of sleep a night,” he said.

Sleep researchers recommend at least nine hours of sleep a night for teens, and preferably up to nine and a half hours. Fatigue affected Becker’s grades, which dropped from a 4.0 as a freshman to a 3.4 in his first semester.

“It wasn’t the only reason, but it was a major factor,” Becker said. “At the beginning of the semester, my grades were worse. They came up at the end of the year (after marching band season).”

But most days when he gets home, it’s dinner, homework, and bed. Most other students get to bed by 11 p.m. or midnight, Becker said.

Seeking more sleep

Becker said hundreds of his peers complained to him in person or on his Facebook page. He planned to take the issue to the school board, but only 15 students agreed to join him.

Instead, he’s gotten behind a nationwide petition started by a Maryland woman, Terra Ziporyn Snider. Snider’s petition, located on StartSchoolLater.net seeks legislation requiring schools to start at 8 a.m. or later. Several Parkway and other metro St. Louis students and parents have signed the petition.

“There is almost universal agreement in the health care world that it doesn’t make sense to send a high school kid to school before 8:30 a.m.,” said Snider, a medical writer and mother of three.

Becker signed Snider’s petition, as did other students and parents throughout the St. Louis area, including in the Parkway and Wentzville school districts.

Doing the math

Schools are in a time crunch when in comes to determining start times, said Paul Tandy, communications director for the Parkway School District.

“If you look at the footprint of the school day, you can see what we face with our schedule,” Tandy said.

Parkway has had a three-tier bus system for years, he explained. One set of buses picks up students on three different schedules.

The school day lasts six hours and 50 minutes for Parkway. Add in bus schedules, from the beginning of tier one to the end of tier three, and the day takes up eight hours and 20 minutes.

Starting the day at 8 a.m. would stretch the school day to 4:25 p.m. for tier three schools, a bit late for anyone to get home from school.

“We have to allow enough time after school for sports, activities, homework, student jobs and family time,” Tandy said.

A change to a two-tier schedule would require 50 percent more buses at a cost of about $3 million to $4 million, according to a release by Superintendent Keith Marty. Plus, the district already is being forced to cut its budget.

Formula for achievement

Snider said if a school district’s primary goal is student achievement, meeting that goal should drive the school day.

“The buses are driving the schedule. It should be the other way around,” she said.

Parkway tried a start time of 7:45 a.m., but there was not enough transition time between the, Tandy said. About 35 percent of the students got to class or home late.

Tandy said the Parkway district doesn’t even have the earliest start times for area high schools.Several districts start classes at 7:30 a.m. or earlier:

  • Francis Howell – 7:20 a.m.
  • Mehlville – 7:20 a.m.
  • Pattonville – 7:23 a.m.
  • Hazelwood – 7:25 a.m.
  • Lindbergh – 7:30 a.m.
  • Rockwood – 7:30 a.m.

More to come in Part 2: A Mercy Children’s Hospital pediatrician and sleep medicine physician weighs in.

What do you think about school start times? Please tell us in the comments section.

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Denise Bertacchi February 08, 2012 at 01:34 PM
Rockwood high schoolers take the 2nd tier bus, so they're starting class more like 8:15. My kid is a Rockwood middle schooler, and he's at the bus stop in the dark (in the winter) waiting for a 7am bus--the first tier. That said, there's 24 hours in everyday. It's a huge pain for teens, but they have to adjust their life schedule to match school. My middle schooler might be getting a 7am bus, but he's home by 2:45. Plenty of time for him to do his homework AND play a video game before dinner.
Bonnie Krueger February 08, 2012 at 01:56 PM
No matter what times Parkway selects, you cannot make everyone happy. Personally, I don't like the fact that my 3rd tier daughter is getting off the bus at 4:25. It is very late. I think adding the 20 min. to the elementary school day impacted times far too much. I'd like to see them take those 20 min. away. Also, I think our kids are over-scheduled and that is the bigger issue.
Denise Bertacchi February 08, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Bonnie--so true! My Rockwood middle school kid went to a 3rd tier elementary school--his bus picked up at 8:40 or so and he was home by 4:30. Some kids didn't get home until closer to 5. That might be fine if you're just thinking about matching your work schedule and your kid's schedule, but geez, in the winter it was dark by the time he had an after school snack.
Curtis Twombly February 08, 2012 at 03:09 PM
I believe the adjustment came after comparing Parkway's day with other school districts in and out of the St. Louis area. Parkway had one of the shortest days. Also, those districts with longer days had better overall performance. This validates many studies you can find correlating performance with school length. We Should continue advocating for a lengthy amount of instruction. If, logistically, Parkway can't start after 8, we do have choices. We could advocate for spending towards additional buses. We could also put some accountability on parents and children to limit less important extra curricular activities AND go to bed earlier. If waking up at 5:45 only gets you six hrs of sleep, go to bed earlier than 11:45!

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