Oley Valley High School students enter the building at the start of their school day earlier this month. A school board member acknowledges an uphill battle in his campaign to start middle school and high school later.
Dr. Robert J. Cappa was unsuccessful three years ago when he tried to sell an idea to fellow Oley Valley School Board members: Let students start their school days 45 minutes later because they need more sleep.
Cappa, a retired family physician, could convince only one of the eight other board members to vote for his proposal, which would have changed start times to 8:30 a.m. from 7:45 for middle school and high school students, and to 9:30 a.m. from 8:45 for elementary school students.
Concerns were voiced that the changes would cause too many problems with the scheduling of events and programs, and would interfere with parents' work schedules. And following the 2010 vote, the schools actually have started their days 10 minutes earlier.But sometime in the next few weeks, Cappa plans to broach the subject to fellow board members again, now that the issue has gained fresh national attention.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on Sept. 4 that school leaders should consider starting school days later, because students would be better rested.
"It seems to be particularly important in high school,'' Cappa said of later start times. "That's when kids' brains change. Kids that age for some reason tend to get tired later and sleep in later.''
Students at Reading High School begin their day at 8:05 a.m., but most Berks County public high schools get started between 7:30 and 7:50.
Students at Antietam Middle-Senior High School and Fleetwood High School also are starting earlier this year. Antietam students begin their days at 7:30 a.m. instead of 7:45, so that those who participate with Exeter School District sports teams lose less class time.
The Fleetwood High School day is starting at 7:25 a.m. instead of 7:30 due to transportation issues, a decision that took effect last Monday.
The National School Boards Association has not taken a position on the ideal time to start school, according to an Associated Press report.
But the AP report noted that Patte Barth, the association's director for the Center for Public Education, acknowledged that teens are more alert later in the day.
Cappa said studies show that students who sleep later also do better on tests, have fewer vehicle accidents and show better judgment.
He said that when puberty hits, an early bedtime is difficult for most teens because the body's daily production of sleep-inducing melatonin is delayed.
"Some parents say, 'Oh, well, my kids have no problem getting up at 6,' but most teens are not that way,'' Cappa said.
Wilson High School freshman Madison Rutt, 14, who starts school at 7:33 a.m., said she's usually ready to call it a day at noon.
"If school started at like 9 or 9:30, I feel like I could make it until 4 or 5,'' she said, adding that she usually can't get to sleep until 11 or 11:30 p.m., and has to wake up at 6 in the morning.
But Exeter High School senior Connor Lovell said he does just fine going to bed at 11 p.m. and waking up at 5:40 a.m.
He doesn't mind the 7:40 a. m. start time, but admits he's something of an exception among his peers.
"Everyone complains that it's too early _ everyone does,'' he said. "They look dead in the morning, going to school. I've seen some people with their heads down in class.''
Rudy Ruth, Wilson School District superintendent, said later start times aren't a bad idea. But they would be difficult to implement, he said, especially in middle and high schools, where there are many extracurricular activities to work around.
Busing schedules are an issue, Ruth said, and daylight is important for athletics and other programs. Plus, districts often have to coordinate schedules.
"In a perfect world, it would be great to start a little later,'' Ruth said. "I think it's good for children if they can sleep in a little longer.''
Cappa said it probably would be easier to work through later start times if all Berks schools were on later schedules, but that change has to start somewhere.
"I'm not that hopeful,'' he said of the possibility of Oley Valley schools making a change. "There are a lot of considerations, but as far as the education of high school students, it seems pretty clear that a later time is better.''