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Chesco students plot course to later school starts, more shut-eye

Like many high school students, Matthew Daniels has a schedule so jam-packed - classes, clubs, sports, job - that he rarely hits the sack before midnight. Then it's up at 6 to start all over, with six hours or less of shut-eye. School begins at 7:35.

Like many high school students, Matthew Daniels has a schedule so jam-packed - classes, clubs, sports, job - that he rarely hits the sack before midnight. Then it's up at 6 to start all over, with six hours or less of shut-eye. School begins at 7:35.

"Some of my friends don't go to bed until 1 or 2," said Daniels, a senior at Unionville-Chadds Ford High School, where he is also class president.

Daniels is among a group of students from various Chester County schools studying ways that districts can delay their start times - an adjustment even knottier than it sounds.

It has, however, proved possible.

Nationwide, more and more educators are awakening to the message from medical experts that adolescents need more sleep. At an estimated 1,000 schools in 70 districts, the opening bells are ringing later. Just last week, public high schools in Seattle switched to the researcher-recommended 8:30 start, as did several districts in Maine.

Momentum is picking up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In June, State Rep. Tim Briggs (D., Montgomery) introduced legislation directing the state Department of Education to study the relationship between teen sleep and school start times.

A year ago, New Jersey lawmakers passed a similar bill, and Gov. Christie signed it, ordering state education officials to determine the feasibility of later starts for secondary students. Public hearings were held last spring.

Typically, the push for change has come from parents. But the Unionville-Chadds Ford effort is being led by those with the most to gain: students.

School officials say they have encouraged their pursuit of a workable plan.

"The kids got the ball rolling," said Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board member Jeff Hellrung.

Daniels, 17, said the idea took shape three years ago when he was a freshman and a teacher challenged his class to do something to make the school day better. Noticing that his friends were always tired and chugging extra-large Starbucks drinks, he and others decided to investigate.

From a National Sleep Foundation study, they learned that more than 85 percent of adolescents get fewer than the recommended 8½ to 9½ hours of sleep; that teens have delayed circadian rhythms that make it harder to fall asleep at night and get up in the morning; that car accidents and suicide, two of the biggest killers of teens, are affected by chronic sleep deprivation. They found that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all called for later start times.

After surveying students, gathering other studies, and presenting conclusions to the school board, Daniels joined like-minded peers on the Chester County Intermediate Unit's Student Forum - a program that fosters student leadership - to further investigate moving the first bell to 8:30.

The benefits are obvious. But the obstacles - and there are many - can seem overwhelming to school administrators.

"Most districts realize this is pretty disruptive," Hellrung said. "Change is hard."

Among the problems: bus runs that pick up secondary students first, then return for elementary children; after-school sports and activities; family schedules that rely on older children to babysit younger ones after school; coordination with vocational schools where some students spend half their day, and - perhaps the toughest impediment - the contractual work schedule of unionized faculty.

"There are a lot of obstacles," Daniels conceded, "but with committed students, administration, and community, finding a solution with the least impact on stakeholders, it's possible."

Among the students' proposals to ease busing conflicts: Flip elementary and secondary start times, start all schools later, and share buses with neighboring districts.

For after-school activities, they have suggested holding morning practices and meetings, putting lights on fields, and adding an optional enrichment period/study hall at the start of the day.

Gail Karafin is a Bucks County school psychologist and leader of the Pennsylvania chapter of Start School Later, a national nonprofit advocacy group. She acknowledges the hurdles to later start times and suggests that change would have to be regional in scope.

Still, she added, "I don't think any of this is a real problem when you're talking about the health and welfare of children."

Administrators agree that teens need more sleep. But they point to other factors at play, such as overbooked schedules and screen time before bed.

"From what I understand, students . . . are maintaining cellphones beside the bed all night long and waking up to check them," said Alan Fegley, superintendent of the Phoenixville Area School District, which eliminated a morning enrichment period because kids chose breakfast over homework help and moved up start times from 7:50 to 7:24 this year.

He said he believed students need to be taught "what does it mean to sleep and how to maintain that environment."

However, another Chester County district, Owen J. Roberts, may have stumbled upon one solution. Three years ago, it started online classes. There now are 10, which students can schedule for first period, said Superintendent Michael Christian. Later starts, he noted, are being examined as well.

Cheryl Hertzog has urged the Owen J. Roberts school board to act. Her daughter, a junior, struggled to get up for a 6:40 bus after staying up late to do all her homework. This year, her first class is English online, so she doesn't have to be at school until second period.

Still, Hertzog said that after seeing the "shocking" research about teens and sleep, she thinks all students should be going to school later.

Daniels and his later-start team plan to present their findings to the Owen J. Roberts school board in October. It is one more task on their full to-do lists, but they don't mind.

"Anyone that is open to this, we'll go and present," said Daniels, "because it's such an important topic."