The concept of charter schools has been embraced wholeheartedly by Utah legislators and many parents. One of the expected advantages of these privately founded public schools was that they would be able to try innovative ideas without being constrained as much as traditional public schools by adherence to the status quo.
That expectation has been borne out in some of the more successful charter schools, and one of the best innovations has been restructured school-day schedules that take into account the biological differences in sleep needs of adolescents. One non-charter public school has also adopted flexible starting times, and teenage students there say being able to sleep later in the morning makes them more productive throughout the day.
There is a mountain of research that indicates people between the ages of 12 and 19 have unique sleep patterns, if left to follow their own circadian, or natural, rhythms. While elementary school-age children to age 10 or 11 wake up early just ask any parent who wants to sleep in on a weekend adolescents are naturally sleepy between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. Forcing them to get out of bed at 6:30 a.m. in order to be in class by 7:30 goes against Mother Nature's dictates for the age group.
It isn't because teenagers are lazy or resistant to authority, although some certainly are those things. But their sleep patterns are a result of their growth and hormonal changes, and enforcing a 10 p.m. bedtime and 6 a.m. wake-up won't change what their bodies are telling them to do.
The Brookings Institution, in a 2011 study, concludes that a later start to the school day is one of three cost-effective educational reforms that could make a big difference in students' lives.
In fact, it estimates students could earn $17,500 more over their lifetimes if schools made that change because late-start schools result in improved test scores, and higher test scores translate into higher incomes.
Innovations High School in the Salt Lake School District allows students to start the school day when they naturally feel awake and ready to learn. Several charter schools in Utah have also tried a more flexible schedule for older students. A move toward more online classes and even online schools also provides the benefit of working around biologically natural schedules.
A national group promoting more flexibility reports that forcing early-morning start times not only is counterproductive academically, it can cause depression and other serious mental problems for teens.
Schools are rejecting one of the easiest ways to make a real difference in students' performance and long-term success by sticking to traditional schedules simply because it's convenient for adults.
That a sad commentary on our priorities.