Editorial: Later school start times deserve study

Ben, wake up! You're going to be late!

What parent hasn't had to pry a teen out of bed in the morning? The kids stay up later than you want them to, and then you can't get them out of bed the next morning.

The experience of living with teenagers is enough to convince most parents of the fact that teens have different internal clocks than their parents, grandparents and younger siblings. Parents don't need medical studies to persuade them that by the time kids hit puberty, their natural sleep times are one to two hours later than before.

But, the studies are there, according to Madhu Krishnamurthy's story in Monday's edition. And three large suburban school districts are taking them so seriously they are contemplating pushing school start times back later in the morning.

Why? Because tired teens don't learn as well. They don't drive as well, either. In fact, teens who are tired over the long-term develop more health and even emotional problems, the studies say.

One study, issued in 2014 by the Children's National Medical Center, refers to the lack of proper sleep among adolescents as an "epidemic."

The three school districts are in only the beginning stages of looking at this, with no guarantee they will makes changes. But because of their size - Naperville Unit District 203, Elgin Area School District U-46 and Barrington Unit District 220 - what they ultimately decide will be noticed by other suburban districts.

Since the mid-1990s about 70 school districts nationwide have changed to late start times. The only one in Illinois is the Harlem district in Machesney Park, near Rockford, where since 2007 the high school and middle schools days are 8:55 a.m. to 3:46 p.m.

It's not simple. To change the school day doesn't affect just the kids. There are parent schedules, sibling schedules, teachers and school staff to consider. After-school programs and bus schedules would be affected. So too would be people who have ancillary involvement - businesses that employ teens after school and community groups that use school facilities. In some cases, teacher contracts would have to be renegotiated.

But when you consider the benefits some of these 70 school districts are reporting, we're glad some suburban districts are taking a hard look. Those benefits include a decrease in absences and tardiness, overall academic improvement, fewer auto crashes involving teen drivers, fewer "depressive symptoms" among students and even cost savings for schools.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends school districts delay start times for middle school and high school students until 8:30 a.m. or later. Whether that can work for suburban districts is up to each one, individually. As we've said before on this subject and the notion of changing school calendars, the process requires a group effort, with input from the school community and the wider community at large. But the evidence so far suggests it is well worth the study.

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