Lessons of late Wednesdays

If schools can start later one day a week, why not five?

School started up again this week, which in my family meant that its youngest member had to make a big adjustment in his sleep schedule. Like most teenagers, Liam, who’s 14, hates to go to bed as much as he hates to get up in the morning. Over winter break he stayed up late and slept till noon. I would have gotten him up earlier to milk the cows and sweep out the barn, but we have neither cows nor barn, so he got to snooze.

Now he has to be at school by 7:45 a.m., starting time at Pleasant Valley High School, and thus must crawl out of bed by 6:45 if he’s going to avoid being tardy. Growing kids his age need nine to 10 hours of sleep, according to the experts, which means he has to be in the sack by 10 p.m. to get his full allotment.

But teenagers have different circadian rhythms than they did as pre-adolescents. They tend to stay up later and sleep in later. Liam’s rarely asleep before 11, which means on school nights he rarely gets as much sleep as he needs. I can only guess what it’s like for kids in Cohasset or Forest Ranch who take the bus.

There is one respite along the way: so-called “late Wednesdays,” when school starts 35 minutes later so teachers can use the time to meet and share notes and teaching tips. That extra bit of sleep is a big help for Liam. Wednesdays tend to be good days.

You’ve probably heard about the studies showing that kids his age who don’t have to be at school until later do significantly better academically. A survey conducted on high-school students in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, where the schools have experimented with different starting times, concluded that later starting times had resulted in more-alert and better-focused students and fewer students who fell asleep in class.

Other positive outcomes: Teachers had more time to meet with parents, prepare for classes and work one-on-one with students; attendance improved; parents reported their kids were eating better breakfasts and were less tense at home; and teachers overall were happy with the change and appreciated being less rushed in the morning.

I called John Shepherd, the principal at Pleasant Valley High School, to ask what had gone into the decision to start school at 7:45 a.m. There were “many factors,” he said, including the fact that several of his teachers teach at more than one school site. And then there are the buses—each may transport kids to as many as nine schools, so some campuses need to open early to accommodate them.

Another factor, at least in winter, is that it gets dark early, which puts a crimp on after-school activities, especially sports practices.

Shepherd’s explanation made sense, but I couldn’t help feeling that, if all school days were like “late Wednesdays,” Chico’s high-school and junior-high-school students would do a lot better academically. And isn’t that the most important goal?