published Friday, March 15th, 2013

Cook: No child left asleep

Despite libraries of evidence documenting reason upon reason why her body and mind should remain asleep for at least another three hours, Henley Schimpf, 17, still wakes up each morning at a terrible, horrible, no-good time.

Just to get to school.

"Around 5," the high school senior said. "I used to get up around 4:30."

It's the height of irony: The one place designed to help kids do their best wakes them up as if they're on the graveyard shift.

"Coffee really helps," she said.

Know what would help even more?

Move all school start times to 8:30, at the earliest.

Each morning, all across the county, thousands of kids -- age 5 to 18 -- stumble out of bed way before the sun rises, joining nocturnal animals as the only witnesses to a pre-dawn day. Most middle and high schools start at 7:15.

"I may be awake, but I'm not totally functioning," Henley confessed.

Of course she's not. No child or teen is. Their bodies -- needing at least nine hours of sleep, research says -- are biologically structured to run on a totally different time schedule than how we've set up our schools.

"Waking a teenager at 7 a.m. is similar to waking an adult at 4 a.m.," one national study (The Hamilton Project, 2011) states.

You've seen the signs: kids shotgunning energy drinks. Little kids huddling in the dark waiting for the bus. Yawns. Failed tests. Lower scores in morning classes.

Yet within this problem, there is such promise: If we move school start times to later in the morning, so many good things can happen.

Higher scores. More student engagement. Happier teachers (whose performance is measured by scores from tests taken by well-rested kids).

Healthier kids. Better attendance. Less depression and obesity (associated with sleep deprivation).

"Significant improvements in student demeanor and a reduction in disciplinary problems," one journal (Educational Researcher, 2011) reads.

For most Hamilton County middle and high schoolers, the school day ends by 2:20, which leads to this wicked window of afternoon trouble time.

"Break-ins, vandalism, theft," listed Dr. Roger Thompson.

He's not done.

"High risk behaviors. Sexual encounters," he continued.


"Parties. Substance abuse. A lack of supervision," he said.

Like Woodstock, every afternoon in a neighborhood near you. Thompson, a decorated and big-hearted criminal justice professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, first discovered the promise of later start times when charged by Mayor Ron Littlefield in 2008 to study ways to reduce urban crime.

"Kids' risk of becoming victims triples when school lets out," he reported to the mayor.

Since then, Thompson has gotten letters of support from some of the most powerful institutions in the area: UTC, Front Porch Alliance, the city, the Maclellan Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, the Law Enforcement Innovation Center.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"If we're going to be part of a global community, I'd like to be sure Johnny is awake," Thompson said.

We need a communitywide conversation about this issue. All across the country, school districts are contemplating similar changes, but nothing can happen here without the leadership of the Hamilton County school board (its next meeting is Thursday).

Sure, there are athletic, after-school schedules to think about.

But our schools' primary objective is not athletics.

Yes, it would take some work to rearrange bus schedules.

But our schools are not built to cater to bus contracts. (Thompson said he's talking with CARTA about ideas.)

Our schools are built to provide the best and safest places for our children to learn.


One week ago today, on his way to school, one local student swerved across two lanes of traffic, crashing into the opposite-side guardrail. It was 6:20 in the morning.

The police report explained what happened.

"Apparently fatigued," it read. "Driver ... fell asleep."

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
Lr103 said...

When I attended school in the 1950s and '60s, school time never started before 8:00 or 8:30 a.m.

Schools have not kept up with changing times. I think schools should operate more like colleges, with flex times and hours. Such as morning and evening classes? After all, isn't that what schools are suppose to be preparing children for? College or education and training beyond school?

With both parents often working and so man single parent households today, some 2nd, 3rd shifts and multiple jobs, this would better fit today's changing and often hectic lifestyles. Parents could also become more actively involved in their childrens' learning process. Employers aren't always kind to employees in allowing them to leave work for parent/teacher conferences and other issues. Especially for parents of the poor working classes.

March 15, 2013 at 10:54 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

If students didn't come into class until 90 minutes later many who weren't tucked in would stay up at least 90 minutes later the night before.

March 15, 2013 at 12:58 p.m.
Leaf said...

I agree with David's article wholeheartedly. It's ridiculous to make kids start school so early, and a huge inconvenience to all their parents who have to arrange something for them to do in the early afternoon until the normal work day ends.

March 15, 2013 at 2:37 p.m.
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