“Even schools with limited resources can make this one policy change with what appears to be benefits for their students,” Dr. Miller said.
Jilly Dos Santos really did try to get to school on time.
She set three successive alarms on her phone. Skipped breakfast. Hastily applied makeup while her fuming father drove. But last year she rarely made it into the frantic scrum at the doors of Rock Bridge High School here by the first bell, at 7:50 a.m.
Then she heard that the school board was about to make the day start even earlier, at 7:20 a.m.
“I thought, if that happens, I will die,” recalled Jilly, 17. “I will drop out of school!”
Last January, Jilly decided she would try to make that change happen in the Columbia school district, which sprawls across 300 square miles of flatland, with 18,000 students and 458 bus routes. But before she could make the case for a later bell, she had to show why an earlier one just would not do.
She created a Facebook page and set up a Twitter account, alerting hundreds of students about the school board meeting: “Be there to have a say in your school district’s decisions on school start times!”
She then got in touch with Start School Later, a nonprofit group that provided her with scientific ammunition. She recruited friends and divided up sleep-research topics. With a blast of emails, she tried to enlist the help of every high school teacher in the district. She started an online petition.
The board voted, 6 to 1, to push back the high school start time to 9 a.m. “Jilly kicked it over the edge for us,” said Chris Belcher, the superintendent.
An activist is born.
This idea is gaining strength.
The sputtering, nearly 20-year movement to start high schools later has recently gained momentum in communities like this one, as hundreds of schools in dozens of districts across the country have bowed to the accumulating research on the adolescent body clock.
In just the last two years, high schools in Long Beach, Calif.; Stillwater, Okla.; Decatur, Ga.;, and Glens Falls, N.Y., have pushed back their first bells, joining early adopters in Connecticut, North Carolina, Kentucky and Minnesota. The Seattle school board will vote this month on whether to pursue the issue. The superintendent of Montgomery County, Md., supports the shift, and the school board for Fairfax County, Va., is working with consultants to develop options for starts after 8 a.m.
Again, why change?
Many researchers say that quality sleep directly affects learning because people store new facts during deep-sleep cycles. During the rapid-eye-movement phases, the brain is wildly active, sorting and categorizing the day’s data. The more sleep a teenager gets, the better the information is absorbed.