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PARK CITY — Morning comes early for Park City High School students like Efren Valeriano, who starts AP physics lab at 6:30 a.m.
He and classmates may be in school, but they’re not always completely awake.
“I have a hard time just comprehending what’s happening,” said Adam Wall.
Senior Will Radovan added, “I usually just fall asleep in class, just pass out on the desk.”
Still, he and the other students in his class aren’t complaining: all of them chose to be here.
“You can’t take AP physics without the lab, so they come hand in hand,” explained Taylor Porges, a senior student in the class.
“I couldn’t really take the lab after school, because everyone is in after-school sports,” said Wall.
“In fairness, there are kids who will not sign up for my physics class because they say, ‘I can’t get out of bed,’ ” said AP physics teacher Charlie Matthews.
Therein lies the struggle of students pursuing challenging course work, sports and extracurricular activities, even as researchers call teen sleep deprivation an “epidemic."
If you just look at what's best for kids, the evidence is overwhelming: starting school later helps teenagers. But, as all parents know, the crush of after-school activities makes this a tough call.
A group of Park City parents recently started a petition to start high school later, at 8:30 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m.
“I just saw my daughter getting sleep deprived as the week wore on,” parent and petition signer John Hanrahan said. “I hadn’t realized how overwhelming the research was until now.”
I just saw my daughter getting sleep deprived as the week wore on. I hadn't realized how overwhelming the research was until now.
–John Hanrahan, parent
The American Academy of Pediatrics this year reported lack of sleep not only hurts academic performance but can be tied to poor health, depression, anxiety, faulty judgment, even car crashes.
“I think every school district should take a look at it very seriously,” said Dr. Darin Bosworth of Wasatch Pediatrics in Salt Lake City.
Park City School District Superintendent Ember Conley agrees the research is undeniable, but so are the costs. “A major driver of any school district is transportation,” he said.
With more schools starting at the same time, Conley said the district would need more buses, $600,000 worth. Hiring more drivers and yearly upkeep would cost another $250,000 annually.
These financial burdens are just part of the expenses.
“(You’ve got) after-school activities, sports teams, other extracurricular activities, kids who work. So, how do you minimize that impact if they have to stay in school for an extra hour?” Hanrahan questioned.
Teenagers, even tired ones, say those are the real roadblocks.
“I understand, they don’t want to conflict with after-school sports, but it’s hard getting up early. It’s one or the other,” said Taylor Porges, senior student at Park City High.
A study from the University of Minnesota looked at schools that started later in areas near Minneapolis; Boulder, Colorado; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Researchers found grades and test scores increased at statistically significant levels. Car crashes in Wyoming dropped 70 percent.
“We know that lack of sleep affects the brain’s ability to focus, pay attention, to handle complex problems,” Bosworth said.
Perhaps the best case to be made for later start times is already in practice at Park City High. Senior student Rachel Frain arrives at school each day at 9 a.m.
“I purposely took off the first two periods in the morning, and my parents were OK with that,” Frain said. The school allows parent release and she had already achieved graduation requirements.
“I can write essays and do whatever I need to do at 9 in the morning because I’ve had that extra two hours of sleep that my friends haven’t,” she said.
Frain is a Sterling Scholar and will attend the University of Southern California next fall on a Presidential Scholarship. Obviously, her competitiveness wasn't compromised by extra sleep.
For its part, the Park City School District is moving forward with plans to look at finances and public input. Conley said bumping back the start time is doable, but it will take some public outreach and time.