Education Matters: Sleeping through lunch


By Marsha Sutton

On the recommendation of the Associated Student Body, Torrey Pines High School offered students an incentive to do well on last spring’s statewide achievement tests by promising an extended lunch period if the school’s Academic Performance Index score rose.

The idea seemed to resonate with the kids, TPHS principal Brett Killeen said.

The API score rose by 10 points, an extended lunch – from 35 minutes to 80 minutes – was offered on Oct. 26, and the kids were thrilled. Right? Well, not quite.

To maintain the minimum number of required instructional minutes, the school had to find a way to give students the extra 45 minutes for lunch as promised, without losing classroom time. “We have to be careful with those instructional minutes,” Killeen said.

The controversial solution was to eliminate one late-start day and exchange it for the extended lunch day.

As one student told me, it wasn’t really a reward of something extra; it was a substitution.

“I don’t think it’s fair that they took away [a late start day],” said student Julia Yacker in the Torrey Pines High School student newspaper, The Falconer. “Everyone thinks that school starts too early.”

Complicating the matter is that only juniors and seniors are allowed off campus for lunch. So the 9th- and 10th-graders had to remain at school for the 80 minutes.

“Freshmen and sophomores are basically confined to the media center or quad for an hour and a half,” said 10th-grader Morgon Williams in The Falconer.

One senior, who enjoyed a leisurely lunch off-campus with his friends, said it was more like a punishment than a reward for the 9th- and 10th-graders who had to stay behind. And even though he had a long lunch, he wasn’t sure it was worth trading in the late-start morning.

Killeen called it a celebration but said the closed-campus rules still applied. For the students prohibited from leaving, he said the school’s ASB offered free food and planned a number of activities on campus Oct. 26, which included a dunk tank with Killeen as the target.

When the long-lunch incentive was offered, most students didn’t realize they would be sacrificing a late-start morning.

“Back then it was all kind of theoretical,” Killeen said. “We didn’t know in our calendar where we were going to be able to put it.”

After the positive API gains were recorded, the issue was discussed with department chairs, he said, and it was decided that, to preserve the instructional minutes, “the best route to go would be in lieu of a late-start day.”

On late-start days at Torrey Pines, school for the students begins at 8:55 a.m. instead of 7:40 a.m. Held nine or 10 times annually at TPHS, the late-start days allow teachers to come together at 7:40 a.m. to collaborate and conference.

“Basically we gave up one collaborative time for staff to accommodate kids’ extended lunch,” Killeen said.

He acknowledged that some students were upset about losing a late-start day. “I know there can be different sentiments about that, but they really did want this idea of the long lunch,” he said.

For the older students, “they can actually eat a leisurely lunch as opposed to stuffing their faces and sprinting back to the school,” he said. For the younger students who remained on campus, “it’s our job to make sure that it is fun and engaging for them.”

But because many students were unaware that a late-start day would be removed to accommodate the extended lunch, some questioned whether a longer lunch should have been proposed in the first place.

Sleep-deprived teens

Over a decade ago the San Dieguito Union High School District was presented with enough evidence to fill a classroom portable that later start times benefit sleep-deprived teenage students academically, socially and psychologically.

They are happier, more alert, perform better scholastically, exhibit fewer aggressive and suicidal behaviors, have reduced car accident rates, get along more amiably with both peers and authority figures, and have decreased incidents of police-reported after-school drug and alcohol abuse and criminal activity.

Studies are there, evidence is solid, results are tangible and significant.

Because a child’s circadian rhythm changes at puberty, medical experts explain that adolescents have trouble going to sleep early and getting up early. This shift makes teens excessively tired in the morning, but going to bed earlier won’t help.

Based on all this, the school board was given petitions with hundreds of signatures from parents who had done their homework and were demanding a change from the ungodly 7:15 a.m. start time at Torrey Pines High School to a more reasonable 8:15 start time.

But the school board “compromised” by settling on 7:45 a.m. Why? Sports.

They’ll say it was for other reasons – bus schedules would have to be rearranged, teachers didn’t want to fight traffic, parents said it interfered with their drop-off schedules, and even some students said they preferred to wake up at the crack of dawn.

Most preposterous of all was the reasoning by some board members that the early start times should be maintained because many students are already academically successful. Never mind, I suppose, about all the others who aren’t – or those who could do so much better with a few hours’ extra sleep.

What it really boiled down to – and still does – is that athletics demands that kids be released from school early enough to go play sports in the afternoons.

Last year, Torrey Pines moved its start time back five minutes, so now school begins at 7:40 a.m. – easily an hour before it should start, based on research.

Canyon Crest Academy’s start time was a more reasonable 8:15 a.m. until the start of the 2010 school year when school administrators, claiming there were traffic issues with nearby schools, changed the start time to 8 a.m., instead of doing the right thing for kids and moving it 15 minutes later, to 8:30 a.m. Sports, again, was the determining factor.

As an aside, predictably, reports are that the traffic congestion around CCA is actually worse now with an 8 a.m. start time than it was before.

If there’s one single thing school districts could do to make a major positive impact on student achievement and the health and well-being of the general student body, it would be without question to move start times later and let kids get more sleep in the mornings.

In light of all this, eliminating one of Torrey Pines’ precious late-start days (of which there are far too few already) to make room for a long lunch that only half the students could appreciate, was not really a reward at all – it’s a swap. And a bad one at that.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at