CHICAGO - On a typical school night, Nicole Bankowski averages about five hours of sleep. She is taking four AP classes, along with serving as editor of the school newspaper, treasurer of the student council and member of the show choir.
"It's probably not the healthiest way to live, but it's the only way to get everything done," said the Buffalo Grove High School senior, who typically doesn't start her homework until 10:30 p.m.
With the school year just underway, students like Bankowski are already sleep-deprived. Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued what it hopes will be a wake-up call to the nation's educators: Push back school start times to 8:30 a.m. or later.
"Delaying school start times is one of the most effective interventions to reduce the negative consequences of chronic sleep loss," said Judith Owens, lead author of the academy's policy statement and director of sleep medicine at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, calling the situation "a national public health crisis."
The later start is urged for middle and high schools so kids can get the 8.5 to 9.5 hours of shut-eye they need to grow and learn, the academy said. But only about 15 percent of U.S. high schools have an opening bell that rings at 8:30 a.m. or later, according to federal data.
In the Chicago metropolitan area, calls to about two dozen high schools from Highland Park to Park Forest find that 8 a.m. is overwhelmingly the most popular school start time. A few start as early as 7 a.m. Also, many student athletes have pre-dawn practices, requiring them to be in the pool or weight room at 6 a.m., making fatigue a way of life.
Researchers said this is not an issue that can be addressed by merely deleting an activity or two. Because of changes in internal circadian clocks that coincide with the onset of puberty, kids find it difficult to hit the hay as early as when they were younger, Owens said.
"So the 10-year-old who went to bed at 9 p.m. becomes the 13-year-old who can't get to sleep until 11," Owens said. This biological shift occurs at precisely the time that the brain and body are developing at a rapid clip, and school commitments become more intense, making it "the perfect storm," she said.
Just a little more sleep time also can reduce car accidents among teen drivers, she added. "This can be fixed with a relatively simple and straightforward intervention."
But it's not as easy as it sounds, said administrators, citing an array of logistical problems, from bus schedules to parents' commutes.
David Schuler, superintendent of District 214 in the northwest suburbs, including Buffalo Grove High, said that later starts mean later dismissals. That, in turn, wreaks havoc with the very same extracurricular activities that contribute to a student's success, he said. Softball, soccer, golf and frosh/soph football are just a few of the sports that would be affected by an altered timetable.
"I can't change when the sun sets," he said. "Even band practice would be affected."
Five of the six district high schools start between 7:15 and 7:30 a.m. Ironically, Elk Grove High – the only school that starts at 8 – has fielded requests from parents to start earlier to accommodate after-school sports.
The matter is hardly new, with some studies going back a decade. But getting a push from the nation's largest pediatrician group has reignited the debate.
"It's on our radar screen," said Michelle Fregoso, a spokeswoman for Naperville Community Unit School District 203, where schools start earlier as students get older. Elementary schools start at 8:15 a.m., middle school at 8 a.m. and both high schools at 7:45 a.m. The district is conducting a thorough analysis of how to best structure time in the school day and school year to maximize learning and well-being, she said.
At Chicago public schools, which start at varied times when classes begin Tuesday, tweaking such times can have a "ripple effect," said CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett at a meeting last week. "Although the research is there, we're not planning any changes right now."
The same is true at north suburban Glenbrook High Schools, where the day gets underway at 7:40 a.m. District 225 Superintendent Michael Riggle recalled some discussion about seven or eight years ago, but it never got much traction – and he isn't aware of any other districts taking action, either.
At Community High School District 230 based in Orland Park, 8 a.m. is the regular start time every day but Wednesday, when students get to school at the blissful hour of 9:30 a.m., to allow for staff professional development.
The academy's report sparked some comments on social media, where parents lament about the herculean efforts it takes to stir an exhausted 16-year-old.
"I'm thinking about the ice bucket challenge," quipped one mother on Facebook.
The early schedule pushes everything else forward, too, disrupting family life. At west suburban Glenbard East High School, lunch can start as early as 9:53 a.m. Teens can come home famished, then aren't hungry for dinner.
"At this age, kids don't talk to you that much – so you look forward to having that one meal together," said Diane Zezulak, mother of a freshman.
Over the past two decades, many studies have shown that a good night's rest can have a profound effect on both emotional and physical health. Children who chronically shortchange their slumber are at risk for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases – even Alzheimer's, Owens said.
But in today's competitive world, you snooze, you lose.
For Bankowski, carrying a full academic load – including AP calculus, economics, environmental science and literature/composition – means burning the candle at both ends and staying caffeinated. During the busiest times, bedtime can be 3 a.m.
"I can't go to sleep until it's all done," she said. With college applications starting this month, she expects to be even more worn-out. "I have to take my future into consideration. It's more important than going out or taking a nap."
Matt Shapiro, president of student council and a captain of the speech and debate team at Buffalo Grove, routinely is up at 6 every morning. But no matter how fatigued he may be, he fights it.
"I once nodded off in the third grade ... and I never forgot how badly I felt. I never let it happen again."
Lauren Ward, another Buffalo Grove senior, who plays soccer and is in student council, agrees there's no slack in the schedule. Her mother takes her and her brother, a sophomore, to school at 6 a.m. because he has a football conditioning class at that hour.
Her stimulant of choice? Charleston Chews. But one time, her head started to bob in class and hit her binder.
"Really, it's usually third period before I start feeling like a human."
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