PHOENIXVILLE >> As part of the Phoenixville School District’s investigation of teen sleep and consideration of later school start times, the public is invited to hear sleep expert Wendy Troxel speak on the subject this Tuesday.
Wendy Troxel is a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and an adjunct professor in psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work studying behavioral sleep medicine has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense.
She is also one of the sleep experts featured in the National Geographic documentary “Sleepless in America.”
On March 13, Troxel will speak to the student body in Phoenixville schools during the day and at 7 p.m. in the evening, the public is invited to hear her address the subject in the high school auditorium in a talk titled “Snooze or Lose.”
Her presentation is part of the school district’s effort to reach out and both educate the community on the science of the matter as it considers changing to later start times, as well as gather feedback from the community on the subject.
On March 5, Phoenixville Schools Superintendent Alan Fegley held the first meeting of his community outreach and education group — about 40 people in all — comprised of students, staff and community residents.
“It went very well,” Fegley said Thursday. “It was our getting to know people meeting, and people on one side of the issue heard things they didn’t know from people on the other side of the issue and vice versa.”
“Now,” said Fegley, “I’ve asked them to go out into the community and let people know what we’re looking at and get feedback from people and bring it back to us.”
The school board plans to make a decision by the end of the year.
In the meantime, the district is hosting Troxel’s visit to try to educate the community about the issues.
Activists in the Owen J. Roberts School District, who are urging that school board to take a similar path, recently urged members of that board to attend.
Fegley added, “I know. I invited them.”
The auditorium holds 400 to 500 people “and I would love to have a full house,” Fegley said.
Troxel’s findings are outlined in a YouTube video of a TEDTalk she gave last June. In it, she raises many of the points that those pushing for a later start time for Phoenixville middle and high schools have raised.
“Sleep deprivation among American teenagers is an epidemic. Only about one in ten gets the eight to 10 hours of sleep per night recommended by sleep scientists and pediatricians,” Troxel said in the video.
“A major factor keeping teenagers from getting the amount of sleep they need is a matter of public policy. Not hormones, social lives or Snapchat. Across the country, many schools are starting at 7 a.m. or earlier despite the fact that major medical organizations recommend that middle and high school students start no earlier than 8:30 a.m,” Troxel points out.
Early school start times for middle school and high school not only creates a public safety issue for everyone on the roads, it also works against the students’ best interests, she argues.
Early start times are “pitting teenagers, and their parents, in an unwinnable fight against their own bodies,” Troxel said in the video.
After puberty, teen bodies delay the release of a sleep hormone called melatonin until about 11 p.m., three hours later than adults.
“This means waking a teenager up at 7 a.m. is the equivalent of waking an adult at 4 a.m.” Troxel said when she has to get up at 4 a.m. “I’m a zombie. I’m useless. I’m irritable and I probably shouldn’t be driving a car.”
Studies have shown that driving with five hours or less of sleep in a night is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit, she said.
In school districts where start times have been moved to later in the day, car crash rates go down; “a 70 percent reduction in one district,” said Troxel.
Biologically, the teen years are a prime time in “dramatic” brain development for higher functions “including reasoning, problem solving and good judgement,” the very characteristics most likely to rein in the risky behaviors so often found among adolescents “and that are so terrifying to us parents of teenagers,” Troxel said.
As a result of sleep deprivation, teens “can’t concentrate, their attention plummets and many will even show behavioral signs that mimic (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — ADHD),” said Troxel.
The effects of sleep deprivation on the brain also contribute to other common teen ailments — substance abuse, depression and suicide, she said.
One national study of 30,000 high school students found that for each lost hour of sleep, there was a 38 percent increase in feeling sad or hopeless and a 58 percent increase in suicide attempts, said Troxel.
Lost sleep also puts teens at greater risk for obesity, heart disease and diabetes, said Troxel.
By contrast, in school districts where start times have been moved forward to 8:30 a.m. or later, the benefits are measurable.
School absences dropped by 25 percent in one district, said Troxel.
Students who get more sleep do better academically, and are less likely to drop out “so this has real implications for reducing the achievement gap. Standardized test scores in math and reading go up by two-to-three percentage points. That’s as powerful as reducing class sizes by one third fewer students,” Troxel said.
And to those who say if teens get up later, they will stay up later at night, Troxel said “the truth is, their bed times stay the same.”
There are challenges, mainly logistical, to later start times, including, new bus routes, increased transportation costs, and the impact on sports, and care before and after school, Troxel acknowledges.
“These are legitimate concerns, but they are problems we have to work through; not an excuse for failing to do the right thing for our children,” Troxel said.
And those concerns are “far outweighed by the tremendous benefits for student health, performance and our collective public safety” of letting teens sleep later in the morning, she argues.