On the surface, it may seem like a straightforward problem with a near-infinite number of solutions.
Not so fast. As Boston Public School officials have learned, changing school start times is a delicate subject with downstream effects. The district is in the midst of a wave of backlash following the release of a plan last week that would shift the schedules of many of the city’s public schools.
Superintendent Tommy Chang says the proposed policy is “sound.” However, school officials are hitting the brakes on their plan after a vocal coalition — including parents, civil rights groups, and Boston City Council President Michelle Wu — made clear that they disagreed.
1. Why is BPS considering changes to school schedules in the first place?
Currently, Boston’s 125 public schools operate on staggered schedules, beginning their days at roughly 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., or 9:30 a.m., and releasing students at various times between 1:30 p.m. and 4:15 p.m.
Over the past three years, nearly half of the schools in the district have lengthened their school days by 40 minutes, which has resulted in a third of elementary school students not getting out until 4:10 p.m. According to officials, parents have expressed concern that this schedule does not fit the sleep cycle of young children and also forces them to walk home in the dark and/or miss afternoon activities.
Conversely, a substantial body of research shows that teenagers would biologically benefit from later start times. However, 73 percent of secondary school students in the BPS system begin school before or at 8 a.m., which the American Academy of Pediatrics says is too early. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it’s a nationwide problem. The AAP says shifting back middle and high school schedules is “an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.”
2. Why can’t every school just start at, say, 8:30 a.m.?
That would seem to be the ideal, right? Indeed, according to a district survey of thousands of BPS parents and staff, the most preferred school start times were between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.
Having every school start sometime around then would seem to address both the issues with elementary schools running too late as well as the concerns about high schoolers not getting enough sleep. However, it would also be incredibly expensive.
The reason why start and end times are staggered is because the BPS transportation system is interconnected, with individual buses serving multiple schools. Switching all the schools to one start time would dramatically increase the school’s transportation costs.
“Changing a single school’s start time will, therefore, impact other school’s bus routes or dramatically increase costs,” says the BPS website. John Hanlon, the school system’s chief of operations, told The Boston Globe last month that it was like “a very complicated puzzle.”
3. So what did they propose?
On Dec. 6, the Boston School Committee approved a new plan for the 2018-19 school year that seemed to address those start- and end-time concerns.
Officials said the new schedule would reduce the number of elementary students dismissed after 4 p.m. from 33 percent to 15 percent, while increasing the number of secondary school students starting after 8 a.m. from 27 percent to over 94 percent.
In total, 84 percent of the city’s 125 public schools would have new start times. The full list can be viewed here. Wu’s office has also compiled a spreadsheet illustrating the actual change each school would see.
The new schedule plan was created with the help of an MIT computer team tasked with balancing school bell times and making bus routes more efficient. As a result, school officials said the changes were expected to result in an unspecified amount of total cost savings, which they said would be reinvested back into classrooms.
4. That all sounds good in theory. Why are people protesting?
BPS officials anticipated some backlash. As they noted in last year’s survey, there are parents with opposing preferences within every school. They highlighted the responses they received from parents of students at the Murphy School, a K-8 school in Dorchester, as an example, noting that it was “mathematically impossible” to make everyone happy.
Officials also noted that start times came in roughly the middle of the pack in terms of parents’ priorities when it came to picking a school.
But as the Globe, Boston Herald, and other outlets have recently reported, the local outcry from parents has been significant — particularly from those with elementary students now faced with a start time up to two and a half hours earlier (according to Wu’s office, 17 elementary schools would face a state-time change of two hours or more).
Two-hundred opponents of the changes reportedly attended a school committee meeting last week. An online petition to stop the changes garnered nearly 9,000 signatures. In often emotional pleas, some parents expressed concern about the effects the jarring shift would have on their kids and their own schedules.
And here’s Gisel Peña and her daughter, Chanelle, who attends the Hernandez School. pic.twitter.com/9p71KWO5vv
— Max Larkin (@jmlarkin) December 14, 2017
Despite a BPS equity analysis that found the time changes had no racial or socioeconomic correlation, Boston writer and parent Johannah Haney wrote in a first-person WBUR article that the effects of the move would be disproportionally felt by those without the financial flexibility to adjust.
As Haney noted, unlike high school students, many elementary student require some form of after-school care, which can be cost prohibitive for low-income families:
Let’s not sugarcoat: After-school care is for financially advantaged families. Costs vary, but for two children at the YMCA in West Roxbury, after-school care from 3:25 p.m. until 6 p.m. is more than $700 per month (the cost would naturally go up with the extension of hours needed), plus the yearly membership cost of the YMCA (currently $90 per family).
For the 30 percent of kids under 18 living at or below the poverty line in Boston, that’s one-third of the $2,100 monthly income for a family of four. Manning Elementary’s current after-school cost for five days a week is $325 per month per child (again, with extended hours, that number could rise).
The Boston NAACP called the move “shameful” and characterized the purported cost savings of the plan as “cuts that harm our youngest children.”
“… parents of color are disproportionately in lower-wage jobs, and are less likely to have the flexibility needed to build their schedules around a school day that ends at 1:15 or 1:55, let alone pay for any resulting need in after school care,” the NAACP wrote in a letter last week with other civil rights groups.
Wu and four other city councilor also signed a letter last week asking for BPS to reconsider.
“While we are pleased to learn that the start times for the majority of high schools will be later, this change should not come at the expense of elementary school students and their families,” the councilors wrote.
In a series of tweets, Wu said that no school should have to face a change of more than an hour from year to year and called for more transparency on the tradeoffs between staggered start times and transportation costs. She also pledged to vote against the BPS budget if officials pushed forward with the currently proposed plan.
So let’s halt implementation of any changes & properly evaluate—not just algorithms but real families & school communities. If the School Committee proceeds w implementing new times as currently proposed for 2018-19 school year, I will be voting NO on this year’s BPS Budget.
— Michelle Wu 吳弭 (@wutrain) December 15, 2017
5. What happens next?
Amid the mounting pressure, Chang wrote a letter to BPS families last Friday announcing that the district would rethink the policy, even if they still believed it was a “sound one.”
“BPS plans to adhere to this policy,” the superintendent wrote. “However, BPS is committed to addressing the input we’ve received and trying to find solutions to concerns that have been raised. Schedules will be finalized in mid-January. BPS hopes this additional time will allow the district to work through issues that have been shared regarding start and end times.”
Chang asked that families join BPS officials at one of 10 public meetings being held this week, Monday through Thursday, and promised an update at the school committee’s Jan. 10 meeting.
In the meantime, Boston Public Schools spokesman Richard Weir said the implementation of the new bell times had been paused “in order to continue to listen to our families, staff, students and stakeholders, and gather additional feedback.”
Weir said the start and end times will be finalized in mid-January.
According to Chang’s letter last week, parents who enroll their kids during the upcoming registration period, which begins Jan. 3, will have the opportunity to change their decision (within the registration period) if adjustments are made to the bell time of their chosen school. The registration period closes Feb. 9.