Column: A later school start time makes a lot of sense

My mornings start the same way each day.

Thump. Thump. Mama. Dada. Mama. Dada. (Repeat, repeat, repeat …)

This happens sometime between 4:45 and 6:45 a.m., pretty much without fail. 

It’s fairly safe to say I’ve never been much of a morning person; my wife even less so. Our 2-year-old son? That’s when he does his best work.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we’re wired since reading Chris Lisinski’s piece in last week’s Riverhead News-Review about the Shoreham-Wading River School District considering later start times for middle and high school students. It’s a move that makes a lot of sense to me on a number of levels and should receive consideration from districts across the North Fork.

I thought back to my senior year at Longwood High School in Middle Island. One morning after first period, my teacher pulled me aside for a chat.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t smoke pot before my class,” he told me.

“What makes you think I did?” I asked.

“I noticed when you walked into class that you were groggy and your eyes were bloodshot,” he said.

“Um, it was 7:30 in the morning,” I replied. “I’m completely exhausted.”

For the record, I never once smoked pot before school. I was just one of the many teens who didn’t get much sleep on a school night. I was going through puberty and could sleep all day if you’d let me.

My performance suffered as a result.

I went from being classified as “academically gifted” in elementary school to floundering by junior high school. I needed summer school to complete ninth grade and ultimately graduated with a “C” average.

Fast-forward to my first semester of college — when I was able to schedule classes a little later — and I made the dean’s list. Did I suddenly go from smart to dumb to smart again?

I don’t want you to think I blame my poor performance in school on a lack of sleep. There were certainly other distractions, like girls and sports and friends and television, that kept my mind off school a lot of the time. But I can say with certainty that hardly a day went by that I didn’t sleep in a high school classroom.

It’s simply unrealistic to expect teenage boys and girls to wake up before 6 a.m. every day and perform at their highest level. Some kids can do that, no doubt. I was just not one of them. I don’t think I’m alone.

We must stop asking teens to wake up before many adults do.

In order to make this change without adding busing expenses, SWR officials are considering starting elementary school students in the seven o’clock hour and starting middle and high school after 8 a.m. The thinking is that younger students are better wired to handle the early morning hours and that they crash later in the day.

Another big adjustment would have to be made with student athletes. Practice and game times would be pushed back and students might have to be pulled from class at times. One solution might be to waive physical education requirements for students who participate in sports, making athletics their last period of the day, though I believe that might require state intervention.

I can remember having to play flag football in gym each morning in my freshman year and then attend actual football practice in the afternoon. Was it really necessary for me to play football for four hours a day?

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves if we are comfortable with a system that shapes our teenagers’ school days around athletics and other extracurricular activities. And those students, perhaps more than anyone else, could really benefit from that extra hour of sleep since they often don’t get home until evening — and then have homework to do.

Next year will be 20 years since I narrowly graduated from high school. In those two decades, I’ve never had to wake up as early as I did then with any regularity. I’ve also performed much better professionally than I ever did in school.

On Monday evening I stayed up a little later than usual to watch the Iowa caucuses. When my head finally hit the pillow around 12:45 a.m., I went out like a light.

The next thing I remember hearing was: Thump. Thump. Mama. Dada. Mama. Dada. (Repeat, repeat, repeat …)

I really can’t wait for that kid to hit puberty.

Grant Parpan
Grant Parpan

The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].