Want to save the next generation of kids? Start school later in the morning

Sunday , January 14, 2018 - 4:00 AM1 comment

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

Our children are suffering. Graduation rates in the Ogden School District were the lowest in the state in 2016, and although graduation rates rose 7 percent in 2017, one out of every four students in Ogden high schools do not graduate. Throw into that mix crime, substance abuse, mental health issues and even car accidents, and you have an entire generation of adolescents in crisis.

Our societal mores promote the safety and well-being of our children, so shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to consider every possible solution to the problem?

For several years now, the Center for Disease Control has been warning of a health crisis affecting today's adolescents. This crisis causes the following: increased obesity; decreased physical activity; mental health issues, including anxiety, drug abuse, and depression; engagement in risky behaviors, including drinking, smoking tobacco, and illicit drug use; and poor academic performance.

Research from the University of Minnesota in 2014, among many other studies, has shown that addressing and rectifying this one particular health threat boosts school attendance, test scores, grades in core subjects like math, science and English, and helps brain growth and cognitive development in children and adolescents that decrease risky behavior. The miracle cure also decreased tardiness, depression, substance abuse and car accidents. It provides our children with more energy to be physically active. Even better news: the cure has now been tested and analyzed for almost a decade in numerous locations, and it is immediately available for all our high schools and middle schools in Weber and Davis county at no cost.

So what is the "magic pill" we need to give our teens?

Let our kids sleep in, and start school just one hour later.

Of course I know this from the morning ritual in my own household. Sometime between 6 a.m. and 6:15 a.m., I venture downstairs to knock on the door of our 15-year-old’s room. I open the door, flip on the light and an inert hunk of teen lies unconscious in his bed. At this point, I feel a pang of envy for the amazingly deep slumber. Then reality sets in, and I begin the ritual parental badgering: “Time to get up. Give me a thumbs-up sign or I won’t stop talking. Rise and shine. Time to wake up. Thumbs-up? Do I need to sing?” I continue and if necessary start to sing, until a hand emerges from the covers, thumb extended.

After our ritual, I go back upstairs and wait at least 10 minutes for the sound of the downstairs shower kicking on, because there have been mornings when, despite the rude awakening, glaring light and thumbs-up, the warmth of the comforter and sleep prevail. And then there are the mornings that elicit pleas for more time, the phenomena where all teenage concerns for social acceptance based on hygiene and vanity are abandoned, superseded by the biological need for more sleep.

Now, my son's charter school, the high school, starts shortly after 8 a.m. However, because it's out of our public school boundaries, the commute is a good 20 minutes. The recommended start time for high school and middle schools, according to all the research, is no earlier than 8:30 a.m., but the studies suggest even a little later is beneficial.

Of course, I'd heard about this research, and some 40 years later, I still remember the horror of mornings as an adolescent. I remember sleeping in class, and the occasional renderings of the BYU fight song (“Rise and Shout”), shaking me from my slumber.

Yet, despite all the research, we still insist on dragging our kids out of bed too early.

If the problem impacting our adolescents was anything other than the teenager’s biological propensity to stay up late and sleep in, but rather something like a surge in sexually transmitted diseases, we would have programs, legislation, and medical interventions to fix it. Yet a school board vote or charter school administrative decision is all it takes — no programs, no legislation, no interventions, just a brave choice to maybe inconvenience a few people and follow the science.

The only reason we stick with our early school schedules is inertia and the fear of change. But as a society, the trope "Think of the children!" seems to be just that; an inert trope. We need to ask ourselves what is truly important, the outdated "early-to-bed" axiom or our children’s well-being, and ultimately, their futures?

Rarely have I felt like something I’ve written in the pages of the newspaper could have an unseen and immediate impact on so many lives. The decision is not mine alone to make. However, it can be ours if we choose, as parents, to act.

I will be sending a copy of this column to my son’s school, and I encourage you to demand the same of your school’s administrators. I hope next year, when I go downstairs at 7 a.m. to knock on the door, the ‘thumbs-up’ comes from a growing young man, well-rested and ready to take on the day, and the world.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.

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