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Health advocates are pushing districts to move the first bell later for adolescents.

Improving kids’ school performance isn’t just about rigorous classes and great teachers—helping them get quality sleep may actually be even more important. That’s especially true for adolescents, whose internal body clocks are different from those of younger kids. Kids’ circadian rhythm changes as they mature—when they’re teens, melatoninThe hormone secreted by the pineal gland thought to help adjust our internal and external clocks
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 secretion begins later at night and shuts off later in the morning. That makes it harder for high schoolers to go to bed early and wake up at dawn. The problem: Traditional school schedules, which often have adolescents beginning classes as early as 7:00am, are at odds with this later circadian rhythm timing. While teens need between eight and 10 hours of sleep a night, those who have to be up early for school risk being perpetually sleep-deprived.

The discrepancy has serious implications in the classroom and beyond. Adolescents who start their first class of the day before 8:00am. perform worse in their courses for the rest of that day than those who start at a later time. Sleep-deprived teens experience more emotional and behavioral problems, have poorer impulse control and decision-making skills, and are more likely to drive when drowsy. They’re also more likely to use tobacco and alcohol, and show an overall low performance both academically and athletically.

That’s why health and education experts have started a movement to make middle and high schools start later for adolescents. Even United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took to Twitter to show his support of the notion, tweeting, “Common sense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later.” And more and more districts across the country are getting on board, with successful results.

For example, when districts in and around Minneapolis, Minnesota, moved their high schools’ start times from either 7:15am. or 7:25am. to either 8:30am. or 8:40am., they found that attendance improved, tardiness decreased, and kids took fewer trips to the school nurse. Students also ate breakfast more frequently and averaged about one more hour of sleep each night. Teachers and administrators noted that kids were more alert in class and were less likely to be sent to the principal for discipline problems—and also noted that schools had an overall calmer atmosphere.

In Fayette County, Kentucky, one district moved its high school start time from 7:30am. to 8:30am. and found that students got about 50 more minutes of sleep per night. Interestingly, the rate of car crashes from 16- to 18-year-old drivers dropped—which is significant because 55 percent of fall-asleep crashes happen to drivers under the age of 25. And after high schools in South Washington County, Minnesota, moved to an 8:35am. start time, student grades in some classes rose up to a full grade point, and ACT scores rose significantly for some students.

While the benefits, both academic and otherwise, of school starting later for adolescents are clear, many schools are, of course, hesitant to change the status quo for various reasons. For instance, many districts worry that shifting the bell schedules at the high school level will require shifts at middle and elementary schools, which could impact busing schedules and costs. Others note that a later start time would mean later dismissal, which could affect sports teams. Later sports practices could mean playing after dark outdoors, which could require schools to purchase pricey field lights. And if all schools in the area aren’t on a similar schedule, student athletes might have to miss afternoon classes to attend games. Plus, any students who work after-school jobs would be forced to take on limited hours, which is especially significant for those who help to support their families. Some opponents to the start-later movement point out that this could create a disadvantage, specifically for lower-income families.

It’s a controversial topic, but there’s one thing everyone can agree on: Shifting the standard school schedule for adolescents is no small task. It requires community members at all levels to come together, get educated on the benefits, and find solutions.