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Young and sleepless

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Early to bed and early to rise, advised Benjamin Franklin, who of course had never read the research of Mary Carskadon.

Carskadon is the guru of research about the sleep habits and needs of teenagers. Her conclusion: high schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and 9 is even better.It's a notion that goes against the grain of the Puritan rise-and-shine ethic, but it may be an idea whose time has come. Two school districts in Minnesota have opted for later school start times, and districts from Virginia to Oregon are studying the idea.

Earlier this summer, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., introduced legislation that would encourage school districts across the country to delay school start times to "at least 9 a.m." The "Z's to A's Act" would provide federal grants of $25,000 to participating schools.

Carskadon, in an interview recently from the E.P. Bradley Hospital Sleep Research Laboratory at the Brown University School of Medicine, explained that teenagers need more sleep than children and adults. And, in general, they need to begin that sleep later at night, which means they need to sleep in later in the morning.

It is not slothfulness that causes teens to put their heads down on their desks or stare blankly at their teachers in early morning classes, says Carskadon. To some degree, at least, the culprit is melatonin, the hormone that induces drowsiness and helps set the body's biological clock.

Carskadon and her colleagues have been doing research into teen sleep for two decades. For most of that time, few public school educators paid attention.

All that changed three years ago, when the school board in Edina, Minn., started taking a closer look at the teen sleep findings. At that time, Edina High, like most of the nation's high schools, rang its first bell at 7:30 a.m. Like most of the nation's high school students, that meant that Edina's students rose some time between 6 and 7.

In 1996, the school district adopted an 8:30 a.m. start time. Now, two years later, the experiment is proving to be a "phenomenal" success, says Superintendent Kenneth Dragseth.

Parents and teachers are supportive of the change, he says, and are even more supportive after the second year than the first. Teachers, says Dragseth, report better attendance, less tardiness and more alertness in early morning classes. Administrators report fewer discipline problems and fewer students complaining of depression. And students are doing better academically.

All this is anecdotal evidence, though. A scientific analysis of attendance rates and test scores is currently under way at the University of Minnesota, says Kyla Wahlstrom, associate director of the Center for Applied Research in Educational Improvement. Hard data should be available by early September.

A check of Wasatch Front school districts reveals that there is some buzz locally about the teen sleep research but that nobody is seriously looking at a change in high school start times.

Local teachers, however, will vouch for the fact that when school starts at 7:30, students tend to not function as optimally during the first hour or two.

"Sluggish" is the word Highland High math teacher Ann Larsen uses to describe many of her first-period students. If she's teaching something like factoring a trinomial, says Larsen, first-period students are much less likely to ask challenging questions.

"Seven-thirty is a little early to expect students to be ready to learn," she says, "especially since they may have watched Jay Leno the night before."

Although the answer would seem to be "make teenagers go to bed earlier," it's not that easy, say sleep researchers like Caskadon.

Up until the late 1970s, she says, everyone assumed that teenagers needed less sleep than children. But when researchers began testing them in sleep labs - allowing the teens to sleep as long as they wanted - they discovered that they needed as much sleep at 16 as they did at 10 (they slept an average of 91/4 hours and need at least 81/4, says Carskadon). Researchers also discovered that they tended to stay up later at night.

At first, says Caskadon, researchers assumed that this delayed sleep pattern was simply the result of psycho-social factors such as the desire to exert their independence, a burgeoning social life, and the increased demands of school work and jobs.

But when researchers put teenagers in darkened sleep labs where their normal 24-hour sleep-wake cycle was not tied to clocks and schedules, they discovered that most teens tended to experience a "phase shift" in their circadian rhythms - due to a delay in the nightly release of melatonin - thus making it hard for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. or midnight.

Since teenagers need at least 8 hours of sleep - and their alarm clocks ring at 6 or 6:30 on school days - that means they spend their school days sleep-deprived.

And the result, says Caskadon, adds up to more than drowsiness. Students who wake up before their brains are ready, forego valuable REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. And it is REM sleep, says sleep researchers, that appears to play a crucial role in the formation of memory.

Caskadon and her colleagues are now trying to pin down what exactly is happening physiologically in teenagers' brains that causes them to stay awake later at night.

Although school districts across the country are looking at her research, Caskadon is quick to point out that student success "is not a one-issue problem." She is not saying, she stresses, "that changing school start times will save everything."

On the other hand, sleep deprivation has been proved to interfere with cognitive functioning, especially the type needed for creative problem-solving. And a researcher in Caskadon's lab has found at least preliminary evidence that sleep deprivation can cause irritability and emotional instability.

Still, even if the research is conclusive that teens would do better if they're allowed to sleep in, changing school start times is a complicated story problem with multiple subplots.

"A whole lot of things go into scheduling," notes Salt Lake City School District spokesperson Sherri Clark, "not the least of which are bus schedules and after-school activities."

Minnesota's Edina School District overcame the bus problem partly because the district is fairly small and it owns its own buses. In Fairfax, Va., a task force looking into later high school start times favored the change but reported that it would cost as much as $31 million for new buses. Option B would require no new buses but would entail schedule shifts that would mean elementary school students wouldn't get out of school till 4:25 p.m.

Shifting school start times also means coordinating after-school athletic competitions and practices. And there is the issue of after-school jobs.

Although the logistical problems of starting high school later are significant, Carskadon says it's worth the effort. And it's time that society put more value on sleep, she says. Adults should stop bragging that they get by on very little.

And, in the same way that we drum into kids' heads the food pyramid, she says, we should start teaching children the importance of a good night's sleep.