Let’s Be Awake: The Benefits of Starting the School Day at 9am

Op-Ed Contest Winner #1

By Leonardo Elie


Everybody learns better when they are awake,” observes Mary Carskadon, Brown University Professor of Human Behavior. Unfortunately, this cannot be a reality at The Beacon School in New York City, where many students trudge through the day like zombies, their brains and bodies unable to meet the requirements of a stressful and exhausting school day. I am a sophomore at Beacon, and I am one of those zombies. Instead of being active and attentive in class, we spend much of the 55 minute period channeling all our willpower toward keeping our eyes open for as long as possible. There is one primary cause for this destruction of our academic performance and mental health: the absurdly early time that school begins.

  A Beacon school day starts at 8am, an hour before the 9am start time recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. It’s possible to claim that many schools across the country start too early (over 90% of secondary school students in America fail to get enough sleep), but our situation is unique due to our school’s location. Beacon is located in midtown Manhattan, while many of the 1600 students live at distant points of the metropolitan area–the Bronx and Staten Island, Park Slope and upper Manhattan. Based on what I hear from other students, most of our commutes take at least an hour (not including train delays). What does this mean? This means that much of our student population is forced to exit their homes at around 7am. Before then, these students must wake up, eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, brush their teeth, and pack their bags–all before seven in the morning! And that’s after students get home late in the evening due to extracurricular activities with mountains of homework left to do.     

  How, specifically, does this early start time affect us students? There are dramatic effects that come with an 8am start time, which scientists have described as “abusive,” “cruel,” and “nuts.” The primary effect is sleep deprivation, which is currently considered a public health epidemic among adolescents by medical professionals. Doctors, scientists and medical experts all recommend that adolescents get eight hours of sleep per night, but most Beacon students I know get seven hours of sleep or less, and studies indicate that this is true for high school students across the country. Car crashes kill more teenagers than any other cause of death in our age group, and sleep-deprived teenagers are disproportionately likely to be involved in motor vehicle crashes. While I don’t know any Beacon students who drive themselves to school, the CDC reports a number of other effects of sleep deprivation that certainly impact us Beaconites. These include obesity, excessive use of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs, as well as poor academic performance. If our school really cares about our mental, physical, and academic wellbeing, it must try to remedy the problem of our sleep deprivation.

The solution to this problem is simple, and has already been incorporated in a large number of high schools across the country; school should start at nine o’clock, only one hour later than it currently does. This would allow students to sleep longer, eat better in the morning, and arrive at school on time, alert, and in peak condition for learning. It would also make us less susceptible to the social ills that come with lack of sleep.  

You may think that if the school day begins later, students will then go to bed later, but this is not the case. In fact, in a CDC study, 93% of students surveyed stuck to their bedtimes when the start time was pushed back by an hour. If the start time at Beacon were delayed until 9 am, the result would likely be that many more of us students would get a solid nine hours of sleep a night. The effect of this extra sleep would be profound. Studies in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have shown that when school start time is pushed back, attendance, in-class attentiveness, and grades improve, while the rate of teen car accidents decreases.

It can be argued that the 8am start time is necessary to keep the transit system from being overcrowded in the morning rush hour, centered on a 9am start to the business day — but students and other commuters would adjust (we are good at finding space on crowded trains and buses). And it could be argued that starting the school day later will mean ending it later, delaying sports practices and other extracurricular activities — but these are just not as important as the school day. The primary purpose of school at Beacon is to provide a fulfilling academic experience.  

The pros to a later start time greatly outweigh the cons. If the start time is changed to 9am at Beacon, the students at our school will become noticeably more prepared for the school day, both mentally and academically. We will have higher grades and fewer absences, and will be less susceptible to taking harmful substances. Most importantly, we will be fully awake, ready to be attentive and participate to our fullest extent in our classes — to engage with any situation that comes our way.