As the mother of an Oakton High School freshman, Terry Edwards’ day starts a little after 5 a.m.
After a quick shower and getting breakfast ready, Edwards attempts to wake her son at 5:40 a.m.
“An alarm clock just doesn’t do it for him,” she said. “If we’re lucky, he’s out of bed by [6 .m.] in order to eat, dress and scoot around the corner by 6:23 to catch a bus, which arrives very precisely by 6:25.”
The driver keeps the bus dark and warm for the sleeping students, Edwards said.
“She allows them to continue to sleep until about 6:50 [a.m.] when she turns on the lights, blasts HOT 99.5 to wake them up. They pour out of the bus into the hallways, where they fall back to sleep until 7:18 when the bell rings and they go to first period [classes],” Edwards said.
Although teachers say Edwards’ son performs well in school, his first-period teacher provides a caveat — “When he’s awake, he does fine.”
Edwards was among the parents who appealed to the School Board to vote for delaying high school start times, thus allowing students to sleep later in the morning.
The School Board voted 10-2 on Thursday to approve adding the goal of setting high school start times after 8 a.m. Administrative staff have until June to study how later start times were implemented in other school districts, such as neighboring Loudoun and Arlington counties, and develop a plan for similar implementation in Fairfax County.
The two votes against the goal came from Theodore Velkoff (At-large) and Kathy Smith (Sully District), who asked for more time to discuss the issue with the public before setting it as a School Board goal.
Almost all county high schools begin their days between 7:20 and 7:30 a.m. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the regional magnet school, begins later — at 8:30 a.m. — to allow students from other jurisdictions, such as Loudoun County, to arrive in Alexandria. About 75 percent of school districts in Virginia start high schools at or after 8 a.m., said School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason District).
“The board has, as one of its goals, to find a way to achieve healthy schedules, including later high school start times for our adolescent students so that they can get more sleep on school nights,” said Evans, a co-founder of the Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal (SLEEP), which formed in 2004. “We know from our Youth Risk Survey and many cases from our own experience that our teen students are not getting nearly enough sleep.
“Many, in fact, are chronically sleep deprived,” Evans added. “The impact of this is immense but it’s largely ignored. Sleep deprivation affects student learning. It affects physical and mental health. It affects mood, behavior, discipline, drowsy-driving, graduation rates and dropout rates, as well as obesity and immunity to disease.”
Evans warned that the board approved a goal, and not the delay of high school start times. She added it might take the school system a while to develop a plan for implementing later start times.
“This is something that can be done. We just have to have the will and commitment to see this through,” said School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon District).
According to the 2010 Fairfax County Youth Survey, two-thirds of Fairfax County’s eighth, 10th and 12th graders reported sleeping seven hours or fewer on an average school night.
“Sleep plays an important role in learning and health and well-being,” said SLEEP Chairwoman Therese Tuley. “Start times that are in sync with adolescent body clocks are important and result in more sleep for students. Data shows that teens who get that important early [morning] sleep — not awake before dawn — benefit in a variety of ways.”
Parents have been pushing for changes to high school start times for a decade. Previous efforts were stalled because of concerns voiced by school system staff that the cost of shifting bus schedules to allow for later start times would add millions to the school system’s operating budget.
As many as 9,000 residents have signed SLEEP’s online petition for later start times.
“For years I’ve heard about the horrifically early high school start times, and frankly you don’t understand what it’s like until you experience it,” Edwards told School Board members.