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Schools Start Too Soon for Good Health

Across Fairfield County, parents are bracing for a nightmare: dragging teenagers out of bed and getting them to school by 7:30 a.m.

First-period teachers look at their students' yawning, dreamy faces, "Why bother starting school so early? They're still asleep."

As a medical doctor, I am convinced that sleeping is exactly what adolescents should be doing at 7:30 a.m. At that time, the final bursts of REM sleep – so essential for learning and well-being – are in progress. This I know for sure: Too little sleep makes teenagers irritable, depressed and illness-prone. Phenomenologically, sleep deprivation looks exactly like Attention Deficit Disorder. Even worse, sleepy teenagers are involved in more automobile fatalities.

"Adolescents need eight to nine hours of sleep per night," Brown University sleep researcher Dr. Mary Carskadon told me recently. "Their biological time clocks run later than their preteen siblings. They're hard-wired to go to bed and wake up later. Sleep deprivation rivals childhood obesity and cigarette smoking in terms of its public health menace."

Mornings are different in Wilton. The district changed its middle and high school start times to 8:20 a.m. in 2003, after a yearlong campaign by the Wilton League of Women Voters. The group produced a report worthy of publication in a medical journal.

Recently, league spokeswomen Carole Young-Kleinfeld and Lisa Bogan described the initiative to me. "It was a classic example of a grassroots change. Everyone got involved," they said proudly, referring to the communitywide cooperation that overcame many obstacles, including bus schedules for elementary students and early dismissals for after-school sports.

The result: "Middle-schoolers get off the buses smiling and joking in the morning. Despite the athletics departments' concerns, Wilton High's teams are winning more state championships than ever," said Young-Kleinfeld.

Wilton High's Associate Principal Robert O'Donnell said the change has been good for students. "Based on our experience here in Wilton and the compelling research on circadian rhythms and adolescent sleep patterns, we believe that it is the right decision for our students, which is what matters most."

We're the most affluent, best-educated county in this country. If one town can overcome the obstacles and get school start times right, so can that the rest of Fairfield County. Wilton showed us that it can be done and how to do it.

It's time to wake up and do what's right for our kids.

Jeff Deitz MD is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Connecticut and New York City. He teaches at The Beth Israel Medical Center. He's been a New Canaan resident for 25 years.

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