Facing Uproar Over New Start Times, Boston's School District Defends Itself

Changes to Boston Public Schools’ start and end times are being greeted differently in different quarters — with lots of public uproar and some quiet cheers and counter-arguments.

Generally, next fall’s proposed “bell times” effectively flip a staggered school day. More young children will start and end school earlier, while most high school students will  start later.

District officials and some parent advocates say those changes are backed by sleep science, fairer and more affordable, due to savings on transportation.

But it was mainly the uproar on display Wednesday night at BPS’s Dudley Square headquarters, among parents and politicians saying the district botched the plan’s implementation and is letting cost concerns drive policy for too many families.

Parents hold signs protesting new start times at Boston Public Schools. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Parents hold signs protesting new start times at Boston Public Schools. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

As school committee members opened their first meeting since the new schedules were announced, some in a capacity crowd — some of them bused in from West Roxbury — called out “lies!” and “let us talk!” Facing the raucous crowd, committee chair Michael O’Neill read repeatedly from the state’s open meeting law, threatening disruptive attendees with removal.

When it came time for public comment, many parents repeated complaints that they’ll have to rouse small children by 5:30 or 6 in the morning, and cover many more hours of after-school care.

But almost as important as the substance of the changes was the style in which the district announced them. A framework for the new “bell times,” based on research that shows teenagers need extra sleep, was unanimously voted into place by the school committee on Dec. 7.

By the end of the next day, principals, teachers, and families were informed of their schools’ new times, some involving two-hour swings in their daily routine.

District officials pointed to a survey of around 9,000 BPS families, teachers, and staff as proof that they did appropriate outreach earlier this year. But that survey’s respondents mostly tended to favor a school day that started between 7:45 and 8:45 a.m — and yet thousands of children will go to school outside that window next year.

“The district asked us what we wanted for our children, and then went ahead and did the opposite,” said Susan Lombardi-Verticelli. Her daughter is a second grader at the Hernandez K-8 School in Roxbury, which will start 75 minutes earlier at 7:15 a.m. “This isn’t the way to have a discussion with parents and children.”

Attendees watched video of the school-times debate in three separate overflow rooms. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Attendees watched video of the school-times debate in three separate overflow rooms. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

District officials say it’s presently impossible to start all the system’s schools in that one coveted hour: too many buses, too high a cost. But Tommy Hayes, a teacher and parent, says he doesn’t buy that argument, either.

Hayes loves that his students at Charlestown High get more time in the morning, but he’d ask the same for his young children. And he blames Mayor Walsh, whose re-election came just a month before the controversial new schedule debuted.

Walsh “could definitely find the money, if he felt it was a priority, to have everybody have a reasonable school time,” Hayes says.

It’s worth noting that these changes could be said to correct an imbalance.

Of the three dozen or so schools that will start at or before 7:30 next fall, 11 of them are among the district’s whitest (with enrollments more than 20 percent). Many upset parents came representing the Lyndon K-8 School in West Roxbury. It’s one of just five schools in the district that is majority white.

This year, only about nine percent of students asked to rise and shine that early are white. Next year, it will be nearer 14 or 15 percent — much closer to conformity with the district’s overall demographics.

Committee vice chair Hardin Coleman and superintendent Tommy Chang. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Committee vice chair Hardin Coleman and superintendent Tommy Chang. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

Beginning in the 1990s, committee chair Michael O’Neill recalled, the district had planned to regularly rotate start times among schools. But that practice never took hold, and that’s meant that the racial and socioeconomic impact of start times has been left askew, said Superintendent Tommy Chang. He pointed to a recent report showing that the new times are more fairly distributed between demographic groups.

“Our goal here was to make the most equitable decisions for the entire school system,” Chang says. He added that granting an educational benefit to the city’s high schools, which have struggled to make progress in recent years, was a top priority for the district.

Few parents or policymakers stepped to the fore to praise the new system-wide schedule before the committee. But it does have its defenders on social media and in the hallways outside the committee room.

One such person is Deb Putnam, a lead parent advocate for later high school start times. She regrets that some younger students still have to start early, but she says she hears overwhelmingly from people who are happy with the changes.

Asked about the pockets of fiery resistance among some parents, Putnam empathized: “Change is hard. Their morning routine might work very well right now for them. It might work well for their work.”

Given the constraints, that 7:15 school bell likely won’t go away anytime soon. What citizens are arguing about, for now, is who has to be in school to hear it.

Source link