Why It’s Immoral for High School to Start Before 8:30 AM

Tomorrow morning I’m speaking at a high school that starts classes at 7:15 a.m. I’m not going to mention the school’s name, because the librarians organizing the visit are two of my all-time favorite people in the world, and the ridiculous start time isn’t their fault. In fact, they offered to let me start my presentations during second period instead of first, and I chose to accept the early start. There’s nothing wrong with an adult (me, purportedly) beginning his work day at 7:15 a.m. But there is something wrong–tragic, even–about requiring teens to start that early.

Teens are different from adults. Duh, you say, but it extends even to their physiology and sleep cycles. Adult and preteen brains begin releasing melatonin (triggering sleepiness) when it gets dark outside and quit when it gets light. Teenage brains delay the release and shut-off of melatonin for about 90 minutes versus adult brains.  Which means that teenagers are naturally wired to go to bed late at night and rise late in the morning.

What happens when schools interfere with this natural cycle of late to bed and late to rise? Teens get insufficient sleep. And lack of sleep has been demonstrated to contribute to higher rates of clinical depression and suicide in teenagers. Did you catch that? Early school start times are literally killing our kids. And early start times aren’t just deadly due to increased suicide rates, they’re also part of the reason why “young adults are responsible for more than half of the 100,000 ‘fall asleep’ [auto] crashes annually.

You really don’t need any more reasons why having an 8:30 a.m. or later start time for high schools is a good idea, do you? But just in case there are a few sick puppies out there for whom saving kids’ lives isn’t a good enough argument, here’s one more: high schools that have moved start times later have scored dramatic gains in standardized testing.

What should you do? Well, if you’re a school administrator whose high school starts at 8:30 a.m. or later, pat yourself on the back. Good job! If your high school starts before 8:30 a.m., what are you waiting for? Fix that shit.

If you’re a parent, move your student to a school that starts after 8:30 a.m. If someone told you that your kid’s car was defective and had a very small chance of killing him or her, you’d get it fixed, wouldn’t you? High schools that start before 8:30 a.m. are defective. If you can’t move your teen to a non-defective school, demand that he or she be excused from classes that start before 8:30 a.m. If enough parents complain, things may change.

If you’re a student, refuse to go to classes that start before 8:30 a.m. Offer to make up the work at a reasonable hour, otherwise some administrators are just going to assume you’re trying to put one over on them. If enough of you organize and do this together, your school’s schedule will change. You could also try pointing out that teens who are sleep deprived are more likely to become drug addicts. Parents and school administrators are generally terrified of drugs. Good luck!

8 thoughts on “Why It’s Immoral for High School to Start Before 8:30 AM

  1. Thanks, Mike! As a teacher at an alternative school. These are not the kinds of kids that make good choices about sleep under best of circumstances. We have a 8-1:35 daily schedule. There’s a lot of history to why we have this schedule that I won’t go into. But our district starts all its high schools at between 7:45 and 8:15. Why? Transportation. Adams 12 like Boulder Valley (Colorado) have school schedules driven by the transportation department (no pun intended, but that is a good one). The buses run from the high schools to the elementary schools to the middle schools (which thus get to start at 9 A.M.!). What else drives the early start for high schools. Go ahead, it’s easy to guess… Sports and after-school extracurricular activities. I’ve long advocated a 9 A.M. start, but am always told that that would make all those programs run too late. But, I retort, they’re high school kids, they’ll be up that late anyway! It’s the coaches and advisors that need their sleep–I’m sorry, not sleep–grading and prep time. So, it’s the adults for whom the schools are scheduled, not the kids. Am I cynical? Yes, somewhat.

  2. I teach at a high school that starts at 8:30 and I love it! I really do think it makes a difference for kids, especially during first block. The only downside (and if all high schools started later this wouldn’t be an issue) is that I often have students leaving my last block class early to get to track meets or whatever sport they play because leaving at 3:30 is too late, but the kids know that they are responsible for missed work and I’ve never had a problem with them making up whatever they missed.

  3. Here, here. As a teacher I agree. Unfortunately, the powers that be do not. Administrators and curriculum directors rarely take the actual student into account. But then they wonder why the scores are low??!!

  4. Lack of sleep is a big problem but starting school later will do nothing to solve the problem. Kids stay up late and their parents let them. If you start school later – the school day will have to end later. Kids start napping in class, drifting out into the hallways and off campus in the afternoon. Starting school later will just push the problem to the afternoon. I agree that the start time for classes is too early but schools are required to have a specific amount of minutes per day. The solution for high schools might be to move to a system which allows students to choose which hours they attend classes. However, after forty years as a teacher and administrator, I can assure you Mike that about 10 -15% of the students will not respond to anything you do.

    • Thanks for your comment, Nathan. And yes, some students will struggle no matter what you do. Heck, I was one of those students for at least part of my academic career. Remember, though, that the changes in sleep schedule are hardwired, part of our physiology. Parents making their kids go to bed won’t really help since teens’ biological clocks are shifted about two hours forward from adults’.

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