New School Times Have Mixed Reviews

By Seth Daniel

For students and staff at Charlestown High School, last week’s Boston Public Schools (BPS) announcement about a new, later start time for the Medford Street school was a cause for celebration.

Because many students come from far-away neighborhoods like Dorchester, Mattapan and Hyde Park, getting to the Town for what is now a 7:30 a.m. start, involved catching the first MBTA bus somewhere in the 5:30 a.m. time frame. Even then, that didn’t guarantee an on-time arrival at Charlestown High – a scenario that has robbed students of sleep and often hurt their academic standing due to tardiness.

A new start time of 8:30 a.m. was something Principal Will Thomas said could really help continue improvement at the high school next year.

Charlestown High is moving next year from a 7:30 a.m. to 1:50 p.m. school day, to an 8:30 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. school day.

“I am excited about the new start time,” said Thomas. “It will be great for high school students, but I also know it is a challenge for some students and staff. I hope it gives us the academic gains we are expecting.”

The same is true for parents in the Town who send their kids off to Boston Latin Academy (BLA) and Boston Latin School (BLS). In particular with BLA, many parents have struggled to make sure their kids make the bus that gets them to the school by its 7:20 a.m. start. That means getting up at 5:30 a.m. in the morning, parents have told the paper for many years, after having worked late into the night on challenging homework assignments.

BLA next year will from a school day of 7:20 a.m. to 1:40 p.m., to an 8:30 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. school day.

Likewise, BLS parents in the Town have a little more room to breath in getting their kids on the bus that takes them to the Fenway school. BLS will move from 7:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m., to 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Deb Putnam, the parent of a BLA student who is also the Boston chapter leader of Start School Later, Inc., said she appreciates the district’s thoughtful approach to scheduling.

“I’m heartened and pleased that the School Department looked at research and dove deep to find solutions in a way that values the health and wellbeing of students,” Putnam said. “BPS has put in much forethought and bold thinking on the issues of start times and transportation. I’m excited about the plan, and that there will be an evaluation of its impact in the near future.”

Not so for everyone, particularly families with young children.

The change wasn’t such happy news for many at the elementary school level, local school officials said.

While the Warren Prescott Elementary saw very little change to its time (just a 15 minute earlier shift to 8:15 a.m.-2:55 p.m.), the Harvard-Kent Elementary had hoped for an earlier start time and didn’t get it.

The school went from a 9:30 a.m. – 4:10 p.m. school day to a 9:15 a.m. – 3:55 p.m. school day.

“At the Harvard-Kent, we are disappointed we did not move to a more optimal school start time, but ultimately will continue to provide our students and families with the best school experience possible no matter what time we go to school,” said Principal Jason Gallagher. “We were hoping for a more optimal school time closer to 8:30 or 8:45 a.m. While 9:15 is better than 9:30, we were hoping for a little earlier.”

The Eliot School in the North End, which has a large contingent of Charlestown students, was the most dramatically affected. Those attending that school were not happy to see their start time moved back 45 minutes. The Eliot will go from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. to a new 9:15 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. school day.

BPS said much of the changes to elementary schools – with many of those changes being very unpopular with parents of small children – came due to the adoption of Early Learning Time (ELT) models – which both Charlestown elementary schools participate in.

Over the past three years, the district said 57 BPS elementary schools extended the length of their school days, resulting in dismissal times of 4:10 p.m. in 27 schools this year, which BPS said resulted in some families wanting an earlier dismissal. The percentage of elementary school students being dismissed after 4 p.m. in the new plan will decrease from 33 percent currently to 15 percent next year.

The Edwards Middle School in Charlestown will move from a 7:15 a.m. to 2:05 p.m. school day to a 9:30 a.m. to 4:20 p.m. school day next year.

The big school time announcement came last Thursday afternoon, shortly after the School Committee voted the previous day to accept a policy that let the schools – in conjunction with an MIT research team – institute new times across the board.

“School bell times have tangible impacts on the lives of families, ranging from jobs to a student’s academic performance,” said BPS Supt. Tommy Chang. “As a district, we must make sure that our students and families are set up for success, and they deserve nothing less. I am confident that next year’s school bell schedule will be an improvement for the majority of families, and is reflective of the feedback we have received from thousands of students, parents, and staff.”

The later secondary school start times come after a body of shows teenagers have better academic outcomes when their school days begin later in the morning. Under the new scheduling plan, more than 94 percent of secondary students will begin their days at or after 8 a.m., compared to 27 percent of secondary students who do so currently.

Dr. Judith Owens, the director of sleep medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, applauded BPS for establishing start times that facilitate better sleep patterns for secondary school students.

“In moving middle- and high-school start times later, Boston Public Schools is taking a critical step to ensuring an academic environment that promotes health, safety, well-being and learning in adolescents,” Owens said. “The BPS community and leadership are to be commended for recognizing the substantial body of scientific evidence that demonstrates the importance of sleep patterns that are in sync with teenagers’ biological needs. Later school start times promote healthy sleep, which not only helps students perform better academically, but decreases the risk of car crashes, depression, and alcohol and substance abuse. We all win.”

The new system-wide scheduling plan eliminates a three-tier system in which most schools began at 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., or 9:30 a.m., and replaces it with a 10-tier system in which schools begin every 15 minutes between 7:15 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.

“The district should be commended for taking an innovative approach to providing solutions to a decades-old problem,” said Boston School Committee Chairperson Michael O’Neill, a Charlestown resident. “The adoption of this policy allows the district to implement system-wide solutions to provide the best possible scheduling outcomes for our students, families, and staff. While the majority of families should see scheduling improvements, it is critical that the district also support those schools, families, employees and partners who may be subject to challenges due to a new bell time.”

An optimization team from MIT’s Operations Research Center, led by Professor Dimitris Bertsimas, worked with BPS to formulate the best possible scheduling options by taking into account community feedback along with the astonishing 1.8 octodecillion possible school start time combinations.

The MIT solution can design BPS bus routes based on school start-times more quickly than BPS staff can manually. It has historically taken about 3,000 hours to manually design routes, whereas MIT’s solution can produce a robust estimate in 30 minutes and allows the district to look at a much broader range of scenarios, BPS said.

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