October 21, 2012

Arlington moms pushing for later high school start

They'll meet Thursday with two school officials, who will receive a petition from them.

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ARLINGTON -- Debbie Moore says her teenage daughter loses too much sleep because of the early start time for Arlington high schools.

And that's something that keeps the stay-at-home mom awake at night.

Armed with reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Psychological Association, the National Sleep Foundation and university researchers that call sleep deprivation among teens not only an educational issue but also a matter of public health, she hopes to persuade the Arlington school board to move the 7:35 a.m. first bell to 8 a.m. or later.

Days after the school year started, Moore found a kindred spirit in Cheryl Till, whose son is a ninth-grade classmate of her daughter's at Martin High School. Together the pair are on a mission to wake other parents to the reality of the adolescent biological clock, and their efforts may be gaining momentum.

They'll meet Thursday with Trustee Jamie Sullins and interim Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos, who will receive a petition that Moore posted in September on the website As of Sunday, almost 200 people had signed it. Word has also spread on Facebook, generating impassioned comments both for and against an earlier start.

"The issue is that teens have a different sleep-wake cycle than everybody else," Moore says. "The hormone melatonin is released later, making it difficult for most teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m. And research states they need around nine hours of sleep. So the argument that parents simply need to make their kids go to bed early doesn't really work. My daughter is usually in bed by 9:30 p.m., but she frequently lays there for over an hour before falling asleep."

Setting start times, particularly for a school district as big as Arlington, is complicated, and Moore acknowledges as much. One big factor is transportation -- not only scheduling routes for a finite number of buses but also allowing parents with children at multiple campuses to drop them off on time. For high schoolers, extracurricular activities, sports participation, part-time jobs and homework also come into play.

But none of that matters, Moore says, if students are fighting the urge to fall asleep in class rather than focusing on their teacher's instruction.

According to one of Moore's sources, a federal study released in September 2011, almost 70 percent of teens aren't getting enough rest, and that contributes to harmful behaviors like poor diet, smoking, drinking, sex -- and worse.

"Insufficient sleep is associated with participation in a number of health-risk behaviors including substance use, physical fighting and serious consideration of suicide attempt," CDC epidemiologist Lela McKnight-Eily said when the study was released. "Public health intervention is greatly needed, and the consideration of delayed school start times may hold promise as one effective step in a comprehensive approach to address this problem."

Districts surveyed

Most area school districts -- 20 of the 24 that Moore surveyed -- begin the high school day at 8 a.m. or later. Among the exceptions is Mansfield, which shifted to a 7:25 a.m. start this school year as part of its move to an eight-period schedule. High schoolers previously reported to first period at 7:10 a.m.

The move to eight periods is part of a four-year plan to save $26 million and stave off possible cuts in staffing and programs in hopes that the Legislature will implement a suitable school-funding system before they become necessary.

"This is what we have to do right now to maintain all student programs and education," Mansfield Superintendent Bob Morrison said last year when the plan was proposed.

On Friday, district spokesman Richie Escovedo said evaluating policies is an unending process.

"We never say, 'OK, we're done,'" he said. "It's all a work in progress."

Moore says that if the majority of area school districts can make later start times work, "then so can any district that is willing to make the tough decision to do so."

The Arlington district said Friday that it was aware of the petition and that high school start times, last reviewed in 2011, will be studied again as part of the district's new "Achieve Today. Excel Tomorrow." strategic plan.

Ready to listen

Trustee Gloria Peña said Friday that the petition didn't surprise her because the issue comes up "every couple of years."

"Other than a five- to 10-minute adjustment, we have generally not changed times due to both bus-scheduling issues and impact on families with a child at each of the three levels if they are dropping off and picking up their children or having the high schooler pick up the younger siblings," she said.

Board Vice President Bowie Hogg, meanwhile, said that although the current start times have been seen as having the most benefit for all involved, "we can and should have the discussion."

Moore, whose petition caught the attention of Start Schools Later, a national coalition dedicated to raising public awareness, says she believes that the evidence can sway any open-minded parent.

"It is human nature for parents to look at their individual situation and form an opinion about the best time for high school to start each day for their teen or family," she says. "But the issue is so much bigger than one child or one family's situation. I am convinced that if parents spend some time reading the sleep research, they will agree that starting high school later is best."

Elsewhere online: Sleepy in Arlington

Patrick M. Walker, 817-983-8080

Twitter: @patrickmwalker1

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