Zariah Jones, a Dallas resident, reminisces of the struggle to wake up at 6 a.m. for high
Jones is one of many students who are waking up early and not getting enough rest. We
can learn from the history of American high schools that early times were not always a norm.
School start times before 8:30 am and in some cases as early as 7:20 am are a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the 1960s, most American kids entered school at 9 am. Why did it change? Because of suburbanization, the energy crisis, and cultural shifts in regards to child safety norms, schools schedules were restructured to allow busing with small fleets. By staggering bus schedules, suburban school districts could operate with fewer buses to bring in the students of families who lived increasingly far away and who were less willing to let their children walk or bike to school.
High school students got picked up the earliest, sometimes as early as 6:30 am. Urban high schools followed suit. A significant shift that took place after the new earlier start times were implemented was after school activities, which take up as much as four hours and are filled with activities. Schools that did not use busing nevertheless moved their start times earlier to synchronize their after-school activities with those that did. By the 1970s and into the 1980s, most schools had adopted start times before 8:30 am. Home developers constructed houses outside of cities, posing a disadvantage for those students. They were further disadvantaged when the schools were built even farther out on cheaper land.
Shortly after the earlier start times were implemented, sleep research began showing that adolescents needed more sleep later in the evening, around 11 pm, but localities were firmly against changing the system. While municipalities have long been satisfied with the cost-cutting and efficient solution of starting high school early, the first study analyzing the effects of start times on high schoolers conducted in 1997 concluded that the best start time is 9:00 or 9:30, whereas 8:30 is a compromise that allows more sleep, but does not impinge on after-school activities. In the 2000s, the early school start times continued and significant policy advocacy began around 2015.
By 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association had all delivered recommendations that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30, citing the negative effects of sleep deprivation on health and academics. The natural circadian rhythm of teenagers is cited as the primary catalyst for change, as adolescents, unlike adults, have a natural propensity to fall asleep around 11 pm and wake up around 8 am.
As a result, there is a strong biological reason for the school to start at 8:30 am or later. Politicians must understand and amend school start times to a later time in order to help teens increase their hours of sleep; but also it is important to educate students of the many benefits of increased sleep, using instructional material like documentaries.
About the Author
Alessandro Hammond is a student at Harvard studying the history of science, and is a research fellow in oncology and hematology at Boston Children's Hospital.
He is 21 years old and is from Dallas, Texas. Previously, he has written for Harvard