My homeschooled teen decided he wanted to take the AP Computer Science exam. So bright and early the other morning we turned up at a local high school where he would take the test. Everyone was wonderfully kind to him (no sneering at homeschoolers in our community… well, at least none that I see on a regular basis). The teacher administering the exam was a kindly older sub who often works at the school. I joked to her that getting a homeschooler to the other side of the county before 8 a.m. was an unusual chore.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s that sleepless season for students. Yesterday a little boy in my class put his head down on his desk and went right to sleep!”
The thing is, it’s not the sleepless season for millions of children around the country who are home educated and some other number who go to sensible private schools. (I suppose there is a sensible public school out there somewhere, but not in my neck of the woods.)
What do I mean by sensible? A school—or a homeschool, for that matter—makes sensible decisions based on what works for students. Period. Yes, the reality of a limited budget does have an effect on decision-making. So do a host of other considerations. But none of those considerations should override the basic mission of education, to do what’s best for the students.
So why is the spring not sleepless season for homeschooled students, some private school students, and perhaps some mythical public school students? Because research has shown us loud and clear how important sleep is to learning, and has also shown us that teenagers’ sleep patterns are different than children’s. And when school administrators are parents, or are directly answerable to parents, they tend to notice that teens do much better if their classes do not start at 8 o’clock in the morning.
“Period 0” at our district high school starts at a brutal 6:40 in the morning. Period 1 is not that much better at 7:45. Teens are probably waking up by Period 3, which starts mid-morning. By then, they’ve zombied their way through two important classes. Not only does the school not take into account teens’ natural sleep rhythms, which tell their bodies to stay up later and sleep in later. But the reality of a modern high school student’s life is that it’s quite impossible to get to sleep early even if your body is willing, given the amount of homework that gets piled on top of anything else they might want to do with their lives. It’s not uncommon for middle schoolers to have to stay up until 11 to finish their homework; many high schoolers are regularly up past midnight, then drag out of bed at 6 to get to school on time. All this and they’re supposed to be getting 9 hours of sleep per night.
At various times during his school years, my son went to private school. We were never comfortable with having to pay tuition—it always had to be balanced with not paying for something else. But one of our major considerations was that private schools listen to parents—they have to. For two years our son attended a school an hour’s bus ride away…and still left home later than he would have going to the elementary school down the hill.
So let’s get this straight: Spring is not “sleepless season for students.” It’s a ritual that we have chosen and can just as simply discard. AP tests do not have to start at 8 a.m. School does not have to start at 6:45. Yes, I’m sure all sorts of other considerations came into play when these decisions were made, but the best health and education of the students was clearly not a major criterion.