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Parents mobilize over new BPS start times

Algorithm has elementary starts as early as 7:15 a.m.

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Parents mobilize over new BPS start times
City Councilor Anissa Essaibi-George addresses parents at Doyles Cafe as state Rep. Ed Coppinger and City Councilor Matt O'Malley look on.

Last Wednesday, members of the Boston School Committee voted to approve the school department’s ambitious plans to change start times with an eye toward later starts for the city’s high schools.

When the list of new start times for next year was published on the Boston Public Schools website Thursday evening, with many elementary schools showing start times as early as 7:15 and release times as early as 1:15 p.m., the plan ignited a firestorm of parent anger that only grew in intensity over the weekend.

Sunday, parents gave voice to that outrage, with more than 150 people filling a function room at Doyle’s Café in Jamaica Plain for a meeting on the start-time changes and collecting more than 5,500 signatures in an online petition to roll back the changes as of Monday afternoon.

“In seven years in office, I’ve never had as much communication from constituents as I’ve had in the last two days,” said City Councilor Matt O’Malley, who estimates he’s received more than 100 phone calls.

At the Sunday meeting, parents expressed outrage over the proposed changes that would upend their work schedules and force many children to wake before 6 a.m., and the process that led BPS to make the change. BPS officials held a series of community meetings about later high school start times in neighborhoods throughout the city before presenting a broad outline of proposed changes to the School Committee members last week.

Author: Banner photoBPS Superintendent Tommy Chang

The framework for changes BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang proposed included maximizing the number of high schools with start times at 8:30 or later — based on a growing body of evidence that later start times are a better fit for teenagers’ sleep cycles — and minimizing the number of elementary school students with end times at 4 p.m. or later that lead to children leaving school after dark in the winter months.

A pair of MIT researchers used an algorithm to generate different start time scenarios for the district’s 126 elementary, middle and high schools, using the framework developed by BPS and factoring in the limited number of school buses delivering students to schools across the city. Neither parents nor School Committee members were given the opportunity to review the new times before they were posted.

“This process was done in a back room and had no parent or community vetting,” said City Councilor Tito Jackson. “It was a add-on to a concept that most people agreed with — later start times for high schools. The changes to K-8 start times were not discussed.”

The backlash began almost as soon as the department posted the changed times on its website. While most high schools will now start at 8 a.m. or later under the plan, many elementary schools are scheduled to start well before 8 a.m., while others start as late as 9:30, creating headaches for working parents who bring their children to school or to a bus stop.

O’Malley and other elected officials at the meeting Sunday said they began receiving calls and emails from parents immediately.

The first call state Rep. Edward Coppinger received was from his wife. A West Roxbury parent of BPS students, Coppinger said he immediately called Mayor Martin Walsh.

“This affects me personally, professionally and politically,” he said.

Coppinger said Walsh told him the decision was made by BPS, not the Mayor’s Office. Rob Consalvo, the BPS chief of staff, explained to Coppinger how the changes were generated by the MIT algorithm. That explanation didn’t sit well with the representative.

“If you are moving boxes for Amazon, use an algorithm,” he told the gathering at Doyle’s. “Don’t use that for moving children.”

Jane Miller, the parent of a student at the Manning Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, started the online petition and called for the Sunday meeting at Doyle’s on a Facebook page called Start Smart BPS.

Parents who turned out to the meeting expressed frustration with the new start times.

Antoinette Hemphill, the parent of children in the first and fourth grades at the Patrick Lyndon K-8 School said the proposed 7:15 start time and 1:15 end time would make it impossible for her to keep a work schedule. She attended a BPS meeting on start times in Hyde Park in November where parents weighed in on start times. For the elementary school parents, there was consensus.

“It was mostly 8 or 9,” she said. “Nobody wanted 7. It’s obvious that wasn’t taken into consideration in the algorithm. I think it’s unacceptable that that was the process. The community meetings were for show.”

Dave Bickham, the parent of a K1 and a K2 student at the Mission Hill School in Jamaica Plain, also cited the 1:15 end time for that school as a hardship.

“My wife and I work,” he said. “A 1:15 end time would mean three to four hours of after-school time and 10 hours in the school building. And that’s assuming they can meet the need.”

Bickham and his wife currently pay $10 a day for an after-school program that’s supported by parent fundraising and generally runs for two hours a day. Bickham and other parents said any savings BPS is able to generate through reduced busing costs would be consumed by increased after-school costs.

Action plan

Parents who attended the Doyle’s meeting agreed to turn out at the Bolling Building Wednesday, Dec. 13 for the School Committee meeting to testify on the proposed changes to start times.

Coppinger urged the parents to keep pressure on elected officials and the School Committee.

“We really need to keep this up,” he said. “Everybody in this room needs to bring one friend with them Wednesday night.”

Organizer Jane Miller and others urged the mostly white gathering of BPS parents to advocate for the entire system, rather than pitting the start times of some schools over those of others.

“We’re all in it together for equitable start times for all children across the city,” she said. “Everybody needs to get something that works for their community.”

Citywide Parent Council Member Lucas Orwig, whose child attends the Hernandez School, echoed Miller’s point.

“The answer should not be, ‘If you don’t like your school’s start time, pick another school,’” he said.

BPS parent Tonya Larson Tedesco urged parents to keep pressure on the mayor.

“Mayor Walsh makes the decision about how much money we allocate to schools,” she said, noting that school districts around the country that have changed start times have incurred additional costs. “We need to advocate with Mayor Walsh for more money.”

Coppinger suggested calling the mayor’s office directly, listing the number — 617-635-4500 — and noting that city officials keep tabs on constituent concerns through the volume of calls they receive.

“If that is the overwhelming statistic — school start times — over potholes and all other stuff, what do you think they’re going to address?” he said.

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