Photo: Alexander Road’s Andrea Prestwich of Belmont Start School Later.
When Andrea Prestwich is at work, a lot what she talks about is rocket science.
An astrophysicist at Harvard’s Chandra X-ray Observatory who moonlights with the Hubble space telescope from time to time, Prestwich is enmeshed in science to solve the great questions of the universes and galaxies in deep, far off space.
But there was one question closer to earth the Alexander Road resident could not derive an answer: why was it so hard to get her then middle-school daughter, Katie, up in the morning for school? The preteen was so tired in the morning she could hardly eat breakfast, let alone function normally as she headed for the Chenery Middle School where classes began at 7:55 a.m.
“I thought, ‘oh, it’s just being a teenager!’ Why doesn’t see just get more sleep. I really didn’t know what was going on,” said Prestwich last week at a Brown Bag Lunch hosted by the Belmont League of Women Voters at Belmont Public Library.
It was only when she began researching sleep and teenagers that she and her husband discover the problem was not with her daughter but with what she believes is outdated concepts and ridged school protocols resulting in a serious epidemic of children not getting enough sleep.
Prestwich’s daughter is not alone going to school with less than eight hours of sleep; four in five Belmont High students who participated in an independent study (that is still underway) are deemed sleep deprived. But Belmont is not out of line with the rest of the nation which shows comparable percentages in communities across the country.
“It’s a nationwide problem,” said Prestwich, who is the chapter leader of Belmont Start School Later, the local affiliate of the national group, Start School Later, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to healthy, safe, equitable school hours.
“We need sleep to survive, it’s essential just as is food, water and shelter,” said Prestwich. It the body chemical melatonin that dictates sleep; when it goes up, you feel sleepy; when it falls, you wake up.
This is especially true for teens. During puberty, the circadian rhythms shift by three hours, from about 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. In the local survey conducted by four volunteers at the high school, 55 percent of students said they get to bed after 11 p.m.
So waking up a teen at 6 a.m., when medical experts recommend a minimum of eight hours, is the equivalent of an adult being forced up at 4 a.m.
“We drag them out of bed at the time their body clock is saying ‘you should be sleeping’,” said Prestwich.
The reason for the majority of teens are walking about half awake is simple: school, or more precisely, the time it begins.
With school beginning at 7:35 a.m. at Belmont High School, “it is impossible for most kids to get adequate sleep,” said Prestwich.
The consequence to a legion of sleep-deprived teens “is frankly scary,” she said. Sleep-deprived teens are more depressed, more likely to suffer from diabetes; their immune systems are compromised, can not accept normal levels of stress, impacting academics and are more suspectable to sports injuries.
Prestwich said they have more suicidal tendencies, suffer from greater levels of substance abuse, and are in more vehicle accidents.
Kid’s don’t make the best decisions anyways because their decision-making brains are not fully formed but its even worse if they are sleep deprived,” she said.
“I don’t want to be an alarmist, but there is a dark side to this,” said Prestwick.
But there is a way to address the issue, and it’s simple: start school later, by at least 8:30 a.m. at the High School, according to Prestwick.
Looking back at the survey, if Belmont High started at 8:45 a.m., “close to 80 percent of students would receive the necessary amount of at least eight hours sleep required each school day,” she said.
And research has shown that teens with adequate sleep each day are better students, play sports with less injuries and are happier and better adjusted then their sleepy peers.
Prestwick noted that later start times is supported by a growing number of medical and health professional groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Association of School Nurses, the Center for Disease Control and the American Psychological Association to name just a few.
With so much research backing a later start time, “why on earth does Belmont high school starts at 7:35 a.m. and the Chenery before 8 a.m?” Early starts were not the norm up until the 1950s when buses were used in the greater number. School districts discovered that they could use the same buses for multiple schools and routes.
And early starts does provide enough time for sports and other activities with “the assumption was if kids got up earlier, they’d fall asleep earlier,” said Prestwick.
“And that is the problem! It’s not true,” she said.
But obstacles remain; costs to find additional buses, before and after programs, afterschool jobs, parents morning and afternoon schedules and teachers hours “will need to be juggled and shifted.
There have been districts that have successfully changed start times that included shortening classes by five minutes, have an original bus schedule and rescheduling teacher meetings to the morning before school.
It could also mean “flip-flopping” elementary school start times with the high school, but Prestwick wouldn’t want K-4 pupils heading to school before 8 a.m. for safety reasons.
Just a few months since forming, the group is seeking School District Superintendent John Phelan and the six-member Belmont School Committee “to get on board with the idea because they are incredibly important.”
“There has to be gentle but persistent pressure on the committee members and superintendent that this has to be a priority and this needs to be done, not next year, not next month, not next week but now,” she said.
Start Later would like to see a task force created that includes all stakeholders – teachers, athletic boosters and coaches, parents, administrators, and students – with very specific directions to find alternatives to the status quo such as a minimum start time of 8:30 p.m. for highschoolers.
But most important part of Start Later’s mission is educating the public.
“If you ask people if they think that schools should start later they’ll say no. ‘Why change?’ they’ll ask. It’s great for our schedule and for athletics’,” said Prestwick.
“But if you explain the harm this is doing to our kids, then they are much more likely to say, ‘Oh well. Maybe we should shift it’,” she said.
“It is complicated, but it’s possible, it’s doable. It’s a challenge but a challenge that is vital to take on,” she said.