(October 9, 2001)

One night soon after my kids went back to school, I peeked into the darkened room of my high school freshman. It was 10:30 p.m. “I can’t go to sleep, Mom,” she said from her bed. “It’s too early.” Her older sister, a junior, was in the kitchen studying for a math test. She knew she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep before 11.

My daughters don’t function on Hawaiian Standard Time in order to be obstinate: research shows that the sleep hormone, melatonin, doesn’t kick in in teenagers’ brains until at least 11 p.m., and won’t shut off till 8 a.m., when their bodies have supposedly had enough rest. By 8:00 in the morning my daughters have been up for an hour and a half, my 16-year-old having driven them both to school for a 7:55 start time. They’re lucky if they get seven hours of sleep, not the nine they need, and sometimes struggle to stay awake in school.

It’s enough to make this Bay Area family want to move to Minneapolis. Yes, Minneapolis, where high schools have been starting at the more reasonable hour of 8:40 for the last four years, resulting in significant improvements in mood and attendance, and a slight upswing in grades. Students get about five more hours of sleep during the week than they used to, and are happier and healthier because of it. Teenagers like it, parents like it, teachers like it.

But the school superintendent in my district told me last year he wouldn’t consider a later start time. Why? Because of athletics. “Some students already have to miss afternoon classes on game days,” he said. But what’s more important, I ask now that the data is in, extra-curricular sports programs, or education? Even coaches in Minneapolis decided that the benefits of well-rested athletes outweighed any scheduling drawbacks.

South Bay congresswoman Zoe Lofgren agrees that teenagers need more sleep for optimum learning. She’s introduced a bill that would make it easier for high schools to start after 9 a.m. – 9 a.m.! – by providing federal grants to cover the costs of changing the hours. Wake up, Bay Area educators: it’s time for teens to sleep.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.