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Later start times will help HS students

Sleep is important.  We respect it and recognize its value in maintaining our health and well being. Serious sleep deprivations can result in illness, psychoses and death; however, such conditions can be minimalized in dynamic, pro-active, youth-connected high schools.

The Oregonian recently carried an article reporting that high school start times can cause youth of that age to contract depression, even die by suicide. Kyle Johnson, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health and Sciences University spoke at a forum on this public health issue, he and others believing that early starting times can wreak havoc with both academic and athletic performance and result in dire consequences.

Johnson also reported from an Oregon Healthy Teen Survey that, in the last year, found 18 percent of Oregon high school juniors had considered suicide. He added that the second leading cause of death for Oregonians 10-24 is suicide and that in 2014 566  persons in that age range were in the hospital for self-inflicted injury or attempted suicide.  It may offer a hint at wisdom on this subject to notice “considered” and “attempted.”

Starting times at all Portland high schools is 8:45 a.m.; in Beaverton, it’s 7:45 a.m.  The public high schools in the Salem-Keizer district start classes at 7:30 a.m. with a late start on Thursdays at 8:05 a.m.  The starting time subject was also addressed at the same forum where Johnson spoke by way of the Multnomah Youth Commission.  The MYC views early starts as contributing to chronic absenteeism where lack of sleep leads to Oregon’s low school success and thereby poor graduation rates.

Starting time plays a much smaller role than what some “experts” argue. In the first place, those students who are motivated by drama, music, athletic and any other extracurricular interests will arrive in school, or most anywhere deemed safe at whatever hour, as necessary to pursue their interest.  My wife and I raised two daughters who were engrossed in music and sports throughout their high school years.  Their interests required an early rise every school day yet they handled the early risings without complaint because they chose to participate.

Depression and suicide may have a lot to do with the youth in our high schools being directly impacted by the way American high schools are generally organized and managed.  Sure, there are electives and extracurricular choices.  However, these are often unavailable or quite limited in staff and materials due to the amount of money or lack of same the state dedicates to public education.  On the negative side of the high school ledger, and often playing a significant role in contributing to depression and suicide, is that too many students are controlled and circumscribed by inordinately heavy-handed teacher-authoritarians.

Otherwise, for many youth what’s called a higher school is spending their waking hours in a collection of confined spaces that thwart the interaction, integration and exchange of ideas and because they’re required by law to attend. They receive an education typically delivered in lecture format with very little give-and-take by persons who are more like civilian drill sergeants than leaders of learning who inspire thought and reflection.  Students soon take no interest because no real interest is taken in their racial, cultural, sexual and religious identity.  One common condition often prevails with saddening frequency and that is that highly intelligent youth must hide their mental abilities.

One can argue starting times until one is blue in the face, but until public schools are drastically reformed to be youth-serving and centered rather than authority-figure cen. Naow, under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, going more and more to private ownership and profit-making rather than devoted to providing the building blocks for successful lives, we’re stuck with more student depression and suicide.  As the clock turns day after day, American culture and all human activity here continues to inexorably change but high schools remain inflexibly fixed in another time and place.

(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)