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Somebody wake me: There are classes to sleep through

I sympathize with Pinellas County high school students, who must straggle into class this year at 7:20 a.m., earlier than ever.

Sympathy, in fact, is the only word that fits.

Still fresh in my mind is the ritual that marked most mornings of my high school career in North Carolina. At 6:30 a.m., the alarm blared. I whacked the snooze button. Every five minutes, I'd swat it again. This continued until finally I swiped the clock clear off the nightstand, cursing its existence and ripping the plug clean out of the wall.

At 7 a.m. sharp, my mother rapped softly on my door and whispered for me to get up. By 7:10 a.m., she usually kicked the door open and growled that I could rise or face physical violence.

Reluctantly, I would roll out of bed and trudge to the shower. After a three-minute rinse, I would wander back into my room, reach into the dark closet and put on whatever clothes my hand landed on first. Pulling out of the driveway, usually by 7:23 a.m., I finally opened my eyes. Because classes started at 7:35 a.m., the 15-minute commute always was frantic. I would eat and drink with my hands, shift gears with a spare elbow and steer with my knees. I'd wheel into the school parking lot and dash 300 yards to class, along with about half of the student body. When I was safely tardy in first period, I would put my head down on the desk and go back to sleep.

Somehow I'd come to about 9 a.m. in another classroom than where I had started, wide awake and ready to learn.

I imagine my typical high school morning wasn't much different from the type many weary youths in Pinellas County face. Despite a slew of scientific evidence suggesting that young people's internal clocks don't kick in until mid-morning, the School Board voted on May 25 to start classes yet another 10 minutes earlier.

Why?

To accommodate the bus schedule, of course. The solution to the county's limited supply of buses is to stagger school starting times. While high school students often are riding buses by dawn, the vast majority of middle school students don't start class until 9:40 a.m. It's a ludicrous case of backward priorities. Making sure that students are awake enough to learn, rather than satisfying the transportation department, should dictate when the school day begins.

Some critics attribute the early-morning learning problems to teenage laziness. But most scientists see a different picture. According to the New York Times, researchers at Brown University have found that biology indeed is to blame for the early-morning sleepiness of most teens. Studies show teenagers need about 9\ hours of sleep, much less than the average seven hours most students get on school nights. The result: Kids are waking up and going to school with their brains still locked in nighttime mode.

Preliminary results from a University of Minnesota study linked inadequate sleep time to impaired academic achievement. The study's author, Kyla Wahlstrom, tracked student performance in a school system in Edina, Minn., that moved its starting time from 7:20 to 8:30 a.m. three years ago. Before the switch, the top 10 percent of Edina's senior class scored from 580 to 600 on the SAT's math and verbal sections. After the switch, the scores jumped to a range of 720 to 760.

Experts say 9 a.m. is the ideal starting time for class _ a full hour and 40 minutes after Pinellas high schools get cranking.

It doesn't take science to convince teachers that most students aren't ready to learn at the crack of dawn.

"You could show an X-rated movie, have President Clinton in or maybe a famous football player, and they would still lay their heads down and go to sleep," says John Welch, a social studies teacher at Seminole High School. "You can have top-notch kids, but that early in the morning they will inevitably come in and bonk out."

Granted, there are only so many buses to go around. But that could, or should, change in the future. U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., introduced a bill in 1998 _ called the Zzzzz's to A's Act _ that would offer school districts grants of up to $25,000 to help pay for the costs of starting classes later. Either way, it is an idea worth investing in.

"We need to look at the ideal opening and closing times and see how we can best meet them," says Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "It will cost money, but the cost in student performance is far greater than the cost in transportation dollars."

He's right. Perhaps the school board should wait outside for a bus at dawn, ride around for an hour, begin its meeting at 7:20 and see how much gets done. Fact is, board members wouldn't consider such an idea, and they shouldn't subject students to the same predicament.

High-schoolers sincerely need a change for the later. If not, students will end up doing plenty of bus riding and not enough learning. And believe me, no alarm clock in the county will be safe.

Brady Dennis, the 1999-2000 Pittman Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was an editorial intern at the Times.

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