SEATTLE — Hannah Lommers-Johnson has attended Nathan Hale High School, nestled on the bank of Thornton Creek in the city's north end, for two years. She's drawn to world history, just discovered a passion for photography. But next year, her junior year, she won't be back. The reason: Dad doesn't want her sleeping in.
At Nathan Hale, Hannah's erstwhile classmates will start classes a full hour later come September, at 8:45 a.m. And despite her father's reservations, and the qualms of about 65 percent of Nathan Hale students, many of Hannah's classmates — and the nation's sleep researchers — are thrilled.
The dichotomous views epitomize the split over a growing experiment in American education. Thirty-eight school districts in 18 states have changed start times, according to the National Sleep Foundation, and another 108 districts are considering the switch.
Opponents — including some teachers, administrators, most coaches, and many parents — balk at the change in routine, pointing out that children might still be sleeping when parents leave for work. They also worry that after-school sports and jobs will be squeezed for time.
Proponents say the move could improve attendance, alleviate student depression, lower dropout rates and the frequency of teenage car accidents and eventually improve academic achievement.
When school starts at 7 a.m., the teenage brain is "still seeking to be asleep," says Kyla Wahlstrom, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. "This isn't anything that's under the control of the students; it's something that has to happen . . . to maximize the development of the brain."
Teens' sleep schedules, researchers say, are just different. After age 14, about 98 percent of adolescents have a chemical tendency to get sleepy around 11 p.m. and wake up around 8 or 8:15 a.m., as levels of the neurotransmitter melatonin fall.
For adults, the equivalent of an early-start school day would be a meeting at 4 or 5 a.m., says Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center. "We could function, but we wouldn't want to be making decisions that were important," he explains. "In essence, we're sending a very high percentage of our high school students to school in the last third of their sleep period."
And so, after six years studying the issue, Nathan Hale assistant principal Katherine Hutchinson is optimistic. "We hope we'll be like other districts who've done this and find that students will come to school more rested and able to participate more fully, be more alert," she says.
Nathan Hale's decision was inspired by Wahlstrom's research in Minneapolis, where public schools revamped their start times in the fall of 1997. As at Nathan Hale, many in Minneapolis opposed the change scooting high school start times from 7:15 to 8:40, and dismissal times from 1:45 to 3:30 p.m.
"I thought it was going to screw up athletics," says Kier Palmer-Klein, a 2000 graduate of Southwest High School. "People were saying that we'd be running cross-country in the dark and finishing soccer games after dinner."
But that didn't happen, he says, "and then when I got an extra hour of sleep, I realized that starting later was a really good idea. . . . It made it a lot easier to actually get to class and do something."
To succeed, Minneapolis revamped its busing schedule. Elementary school students, who typically fall asleep earlier and wake before teens, took early busesbusses and began school first. The district went from a three-tiered busing plan to a five-tiered system, accommodating a melange of start times: 8:05, 8:40, 9:10, and 9:40.
But Ashley Lommers-Johnson remains unconvinced. He resents the decision process, which he sees as stacked against opponents, and he says 100 percent of the student senate voted against the late start.
"It's not a biological necessity," he says of reports that teenagers have different sleep needs from everyone else. "It's a choice those families make" when they let their kids stay up late.
Lommers-Johnson withdrew from Nathan Hale's Parent Teacher Student Association and site council over the issue.
"You don't go forward with such a radical proposal with the community as split as it is," he says.
Wahlstrom and Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and a leading sleep researcher, say those reservations are a prime reason more schools haven't instituted later starts: It's complex and threatening for communities to alter old rhythms.
"If schools don't do some education in advance of making this change, it can have negative outcomes," Carskadon says. "It just can get out of control unless there's some groundwork laid."
Since the Minnesota high schools shifted their schedules, academic performance has improved, if only slightly. Wahlstrom's studies have found that attendance is up and attrition down. "There is significantly less reported depression, fewer peer relationship problems, fewer fights with parents," she says.
And though critics warned that teens would simply stay up an hour later each night, nullifying the sleep gain, Wahlstrom's research found that Minneapolis teens were in fact getting about one extra hour of sleep nightly.
Over half of the district's high school teachers report that students are more alert during the first two class periods. And participation in athletics has remained the same.
At Nathan Hale, sophomore Alison Driver turns to deductive logic in considering the plan: "If your mind's not going to kick in till 8:45 and you're starting school at 7:45, well . . ."