If you’re a student at Montgomery High School in Middlesex County, your school day begins bright and early with 7:20 am homeroom and ends with a 2:07 pm dismissal. The same is true for students at Cinnaminson High School in Burlington County, where kids show up at 7:35 am and end their school day at 2:11 pm.

Those early school start and end times are typical for New Jersey schools, where it’s early to bed and early to rise.

Well, at least it’s early to rise. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics shows that when teenagers hit puberty, circadian rhythms shift forward by as much as two hours, making it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 pm. That means by daybreak or earlier, when student alarm clocks ring throughout most of New Jersey—we’ve got a whole bunch of chronically sleep-deprived kids getting up to brush their teeth.

Adolescents need about nine hours of sleep a night, and those who lack adequate sleep can suffer mood swings, obesity, substance abuse, health problems and depression. Sleep-deprived kids can also have trouble concentrating and paying attention in school and other activities that demand focus (like driving). According to the National Sleep Foundation, 59 percent of middle school students and 87 percent of high school students do not get the recommended nine hours of sleep. Dr. James B. Maas, sleep expert, author of Sleep for Success and past chairman of psychology at Cornell University, notes “Almost all teenagers, as they reach puberty, become walking zombies, because they are getting far too little sleep.”

What Legislators are Doing

For parents who watch their teens stumble out of bed on weekends at noon, this is old news. But for state legislators, who are starting to rethink the way we structure school days, this is something new.

This past August, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released new recommendations for school start times for adolescents, based on the evidence that insufficient sleep negatively affects the health, safety and academic success of middle and high school students. According to the AAP, starting middle and high schools before 8:30 am practically guarantees teenagers will suffer learning deficits from sleep deprivation, therefore schools should shift to later start times in order to maximize student learning and allay safety concerns.

This past November, following the new policy statement from the AAP, the New Jersey Senate Education Committee approved a bill proposed by Senator Dick Codey (D-Essex) authorizing “a study on the issues, benefits and options for instituting a later start time to the school day in middle school and high school.” Sen. Codey’s bill logically proposes that middle and high school students start school when they are awake enough to fully benefit from academic instruction.

“Studies are showing that our current school start time system is flipped the wrong way. Middle and high school start times are too early and elementary and PreK classes are too late,” said Sen. Codey. “This is more than a matter of teenagers dozing at their desks—this is about their health and ability to learn, retain information and succeed.”

But here’s the rub: Shifting middle school and high school start times to 8:30 am has an avalanche of effects on afterschool activities, many of which offer all kinds of benefits to students. After all, art, music, athletics, theater and clubs can instill discipline, good character and sportsmanship, and offer opportunities for creativity and collaboration. These are important skills our kids will need in college and the workplace. Some students show up for school just to play on the football team or sing in the choir. How do we reconcile hard-wired adolescent sleep habits while preserving our school athletics, afterschool clubs and community spirit?

Uncertain Results

NJ Spotlight looked at one district, Pemberton Township in Burlington County, that shifted its schedules two years ago in order to accommodate the sleep needs of older students. While academic performance improved—Superintendent Michael Gorman reported that the honor roll saw a “boost in membership” and discipline infractions declined—sports teams were inconvenienced, kids with afterschool jobs couldn’t get to work on time and parents complained about the lack of afterschool childcare for elementary school students. As a result of intense community opposition, Pemberton flipped back. Once again, high school students started their school day at 7:15 am.

We wring our hands over the amount of time devoted to test-taking in this era of Common Core-aligned PARCC exams on the grounds that it hurts learning and classroom instruction. But where’s the outcry over the sacrifice of hours of learning time to non-academic activities? Maybe it’s time to rethink school schedules. 

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