How much does sleep matter?
Thousands of teenagers in the Tampa Bay area wake in the wee hours, starting their blow-drying and make-up applying rituals as early as 5 a.m. Some board buses at 6 a.m. to get to school before many adults finish their first cup of coffee. For them, sleep is precious.
"Even when you get to sleep five more minutes (it) makes a world of a difference," said Shannon Gordon, a senior at Newsome High School, which starts at 7:33 a.m.
Those early start times would end under legislation proposed by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. House Bill 67 would mandate that Florida's high schools start no earlier than 8 a.m. beginning in the 2014-15 school year.
The bill, which has no Senate sponsor, is a long way from becoming law. But Gaetz said he wants to highlight an important issue — that high school students aren't getting enough sleep to be effective in school.
Simple biology is part of the issue. Teenagers are wired to stay up later than younger children and, with early start times, often show up at school sleep-deprived.
With a later start, "the students will learn better," Gaetz said.
Start times have been a concern for years in districts nationwide. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reinvigorated the debate in August after tweeting it was "common sense" that more sleep would translate into better student achievement.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, the nation's 17th largest school system is considering a recommendation to start the high school day after 8 a.m. Some other districts in the area are looking at similar measures.
Many studies have found that hormonal changes in teenagers make it difficult for them to fall asleep as early as younger children. Teenagers' sleep cycle tends to run from about 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. Less sleep has been linked to worse cognitive function.
Fewer studies have looked at a direct link between student achievement and school start times. One study, published last summer in the journal Education Next, found a slight boost in reading and math performance among middle school students in North Carolina when school started at 8:30 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m. The effect was greater for low-performing students.
School officials in the Tampa Bay area acknowledge that sleep can be a problem for students but say the issue is more complex than it appears. Changes to bell schedules can be costly and unpopular and are linked to how districts deploy their bus fleets.
Buses typically go out in waves, which allows the same buses to transport multiple groups of children over several hours each morning and afternoon.
Changing the schedule for high school students, who usually get the earliest wave, raises a potentially sticky question: "Who's going to take that earlier time?" asked Tanya Arja, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough County schools.
Most high schools in the region start around 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m., letting out students in the early afternoon to get to jobs and extracurriculars. Elementary schools often start next — from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. — followed by middle schools. Release times for the younger students range from around 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Arja said school systems typically try to avoid having elementary students arriving at bus stops in the dark and getting home hours before their parents.
"Then you potentially have day care issues for some families," she said.
Middle school students, who usually have the latest start, could go earlier, but sixth graders still are too young to be home alone, said Michael Bessette, head of operations for Pinellas County schools.
A universal start time would be too costly for large, urban districts, he said.
Sending everyone to school at once would require three times as many buses and bus drivers, an employee group rife with turnover. With waves of buses, most drivers can work six hours or more a day and get benefits.
"It would be impossible to find people to work three-hour days," Bessette said.
Gaetz said other school districts have made the switch and worked out such logistics. He called such concerns a "balls and buses" argument, saying transportation and sports schedules shouldn't trump learning.
"Once you concede that the educational experience has been negatively affected, the argument should be over," he said.
But there's another consideration — what parents and students want.
In 2005, Pinellas considered a proposal to shift its high schools to a 9:15 a.m. start. But more than half of the parents polled preferred 7:05 a.m.
Sheridan Lester, a senior at East Lake High, said she wouldn't mind waking up later, but she doesn't want to get out of school later.
"I would rather it stay how it is," she said. "I like getting out by 1:30 p.m. because we still have the rest of the day ahead of us and have plenty of time to do homework and extracurricular activities."
Yarelis Roldan of Blake High School said she already gets home late enough, "at like 7 or 8 most days because of band."
Reina Speechly, a freshman at Blake, said she didn't think the change would be that drastic.
"I think that's a fabulous idea," she said. "Then we could actually think."
Tb-two* reporters Mekayla Bramlett, Celeste Brown and Katie Lamont contributed to this report. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.