Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Adolescents Need Their Sleep and How Deerfield Academy Got It Right

One reason my daughter is not in public high school is the early start time in our area with school buses barreling down our street at 7:10AM (while my daughter is still asleep for about 5 minutes) and with some students eating lunch as early as 10:30AM.

I always believed that students should be the top priority and not the scheduling of the buses as to when the school day should start.

Perhaps, it takes a mother, as a leader of a school, to make the necessary changes.

Dr. Margarita Curtis, the head of Deerfield Academy, is one such leader. Several years ago (just in time for my daughter to become a student there), Dr. Curtis decided to shift the start time to the school day to 8:30AM from, what I believe had originally been 8AM; except for Wednesdays when the day begins at a not unreasonable 8:15AM.

And the scientific evidence is in as to the benefits of a later school start time for adolescents.

In a wonderful article in the Motherlode blog of The New York Times, Jenny Anderson highlights Deerfield's successful experiment and has comments from none other than the Dr. Maas, a renowned psychologist (whose classes are sometimes media events, I might add) at Cornell University. Jenny Anderson, writes in her column, Let Sleepy Students Lie:

High-achieving teens are getting, on average, six hours of sleep a night. They should be getting more than nine. “Their cognitive ability is worse than someone who is legally drunk,” Dr. James Maas, a Cornell professor of psychology and author of the book “Sleep for Success,” told me over the weekend.


An experiment at Deerfield Academy turned up some pretty interesting results. The Massachusetts boarding school examined what would happen if their students got an extra hour of sleep every night. Check-in for the dorms was moved half an hour earlier, and classes started half an hour later.

Here is Dr. Maas’s summary of the results:

Grades rose to a record winter-term high. Athletic records improved. Seventeen percent more hot breakfasts were consumed. Teachers reported that students showed increased alertness, readiness to engage, and better mood in morning classes. Visits to the health center were also down 20 percent in a year when other schools reported substantial increases in the flu and colds.

My daughter is not a boarder at Deerfield and about 10% of the students commute in, as does she, and are day students, although they spend hours at the school not only during the week but also often on weekends.

This semester, I, finally, got to switch teaching my undergraduate course in Transportation & Logistics that for years was scheduled on Monday and Wednesday mornings at 8:40AM to Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30AM. I must admit, though, that the former schedule attracted the true diehards and early birds with whom I had a lot of esprit de corps!

It takes a leader, and, perhaps, a mother, to set things right.

For some recent photos of what is happening at Deerfield, see my earlier post.