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California law ensures a later start time for middle and high school students

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Waking up early - what a chore. Just ask shift workers, like the folks who work on this program, or teenagers and the people who have to wake them up for classes that can begin at 7:30 in the morning. But in California, things are changing. A law went into effect this month that says schools should begin no earlier than 8 a.m. for middle schools and 8:30 for high schools. And the news is welcome to Ra'ed Ahmed, a senior at Oakland Technical High School.

RA'ED AHMED: This past year, I was taking Algebra 2, and it was my first period. And I remember it being really hard to just focus because of the lack of sleep that I got the night before.

SIMON: Feeling sleepy during first period? It's just science.

MATTHEW WALKER: It really is in those first early morning hours that children are just essentially half asleep. They're not absorbing information. So why are we putting them in the classroom?

SIMON: That's Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. He sounds well-rested and says the benefits of letting teens snooze a little longer are clear.

WALKER: Academic grades increase, truancy rates decrease, behavioral and psychological problems decrease. Psychiatric referrals also decrease.

SIMON: In 2020, the average start time for public high schools in the U.S. was 8 a.m. Later start times can not only make better students but save lives. Professor Walker says studies in places that push their school start times by at least an hour have shown a big reduction in teen car crashes up to 70%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that teens get eight to 10 hours of sleep every night. But even for those who go to bed on time, early morning hours can be rough.

Justyn Sears is a freshman at Van Nuys High School and says he usually goes to bed by 10 p.m. But when the alarm would go off...

JUSTYN SEARS: I was way more tired, and I even remember me sometimes falling asleep or having to wake myself up during my first period. And I'm really happy now that it was pushed back.

SIMON: Professor Walker says there's nothing wrong with a teenager experiencing this. They just need more sleep than do adults. It's a fact.

WALKER: Asking a teenager to be awake and trying to absorb information at 8:30 in the morning, you know, in some ways is like asking an adult to wake up at, you know, 4 o'clock in the morning with good grace, good humor, positive mood and start learning information efficiently at 4:30 in the morning without caffeine. It's going to be very difficult to do, but in some ways that's what we're doing.

SIMON: So what is the ideal time for teens to start school? Professor Walker has a very educated guess.

WALKER: I would say that the ideal school start time would be probably around 10 o'clock in the morning.

SIMON: Now, 10 a.m. start's probably not going to become school policy anywhere anytime soon. And Ra'ed Ahmed, the senior at Oakland Technical High School would like to see another change to help them get extra hours of sleep.

RA'ED: I think one thing that should change, if the timing has been changed, is the amount of workload students are getting. I know specifically me, I have spent many nights where I've had to, you know, stay up to, like, 2 or 3 a.m., just, you know, finishing up homework.

SIMON: Less homework - come on, teachers. You can get a little more sleep, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF VYEN'S "ACROSS THE PIER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.