Laura Meanwell’s vacation photos reflect a woman who embraces adventure. She swam through a cave to reach a Mayan site in Belize. She jeep-safaried in Africa and India; she even worked overseas. Yet one of her most thrilling challenges is unfolding right in her own backyard.
Germantown administrators have been busy shaping the new Germantown Municipal School district, which is centered on the slogan “Excellence. Always.” But Meanwell worries that with early start times, sleepy teens can’t learn. So she’s become a parent advocate, attending school board meetings and building coalitions with those concerned about kids’ health.
Inspiration begins at home
The school bell rings at 7 a.m. at Houston High, where her two teenaged sons attend. The boys’ arise at 5:45 a.m. Studies show that sleep-deprived adolescents are at higher risk of experiencing physical and mental health issues, car accidents, and poor academic performance.
“I want the best for our kids physically and emotionally, as well as educationally,” says Meanwell. “We’re educating people about how beneficial it truly will be for our children to have a later start time.”
Laura, and her husband, Mark, face the same struggle many parents do in this tech-saturated age. “We try to help them wind down. The electronics go off at 9:30 p.m., phones go in the hallway, and we don’t have TVs in their rooms.”
Still, 16-year-old Cam finds it hard to fall asleep at that hour, battling sleep-wake cycles that shift up during the teen years by almost two hours. For 14-year-old Jeremy, it’s only slightly easier to turn out the lights.
After many difficult mornings, the former electrical engineer evolved from passive parent to dogged activist, determined to try to change school start times. Meanwell launched the group Germantown Cares to unite parents and residents behind the cause. “It was just a little grassroots effort involving a bunch of moms,” she says. Later, local fathers pitched in, helping build a websiteand write press releases. The group even had yard signs made, cleverly twisting the district’s slogan to “Exhaustion is Not Excellence,” a sentiment that reflects Meanwell’s spunk and conviction. The yellow signs sprouted in neighborhoods prior to the school board’s vote on the issue.
“I didn’t find it difficult to assume a leadership role,” she reflects. “I’m a firstborn and an alpha. But I've never had all the answers or ideas. There’s a synergy of like-minded parents who want to do the best thing for their kids, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
Watching Germantown’s budget
The goal was to persuade Germantown’s school board to change the bell time for 2015-16. Such a move would also mean changing bus schedules at a cost of $300,000.
The board voted the measure down in February. But Meanwell hasn’t given up. “We’re closely watching the city’s budget process because the budget cycle for the school district mirrors that of the city. In February, they’ll have to make solid decisions about money for start times for 2016-17. Even though the school board now says ‘Yes, we’re going to do it,’ I’m anxious.”
While the local push continues, attention to the discordance between start times and teens’ sleep rhythms grows nationwide.
Joining the national conversation
In early August, the phone rang and on the line was Kristin Powers, a producer with NBC Nightly News. She was planning a story on a new Centers for Disease Control report that revealed fewer than 20 percent of middle and high schools begin at 8:30 a.m. or later, a start time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Powers asked, “If I can find a local cameraman, would you be willing to be interviewed for tonight’s broadcast?”
Meanwell was surprised. “I really couldn’t believe she was doing research and googling start times and came across my name.” She says that after her interview aired, “I got so many comments that were positive, thanking me for advocating for our children. I was able to be a voice for others who feel the same way but may be intimidated.”
Following her example, Meanwell’s son, Cam, shared his perspective as a high school student at a school board meeting. Meanwell was proud.
“I hope my boys will see that if you believe in something, it is worth standing up for.”
It turns out adventure is sometimes found where you least expect it.