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Parents flood School Committee meeting, urge rollback of start time change

Karen Morales
Parents flood School Committee meeting, urge rollback of start time change
BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang

Elementary school parents flooded last night’s School Committee meeting, speaking against next year’s 7:15 a.m. start time and 1:15 p.m. end time for many elementary schools. Dozens of parents urged the School Committee to scrap the planned changes during the public comment period of the meeting which lasted over five hours.

Outrage over the changes began almost immediately after the schedule was published on the BPS website last Thursday with parents calling and writing elected officials and more than 7,700 signing an online petition against the changes.

The School Committee stuck by their decision during the meeting, although by the end of the contentious public comment period, Chang said they had a lot to reflect and think about and would continue receiving feedback in ongoing community meetings.

The district’s stated goal in changing bell times is to increase the number of high school students starting class after 8 a.m. and decrease the number of elementary students dismissed after 4 p.m. District officials set out to reach these goals all the while increasing parity between students of different race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and special education.

The new schedule was one scenario out of more than 30,000 generated by an algorithm developed by MIT researchers.

Chang said the start times for K – 6 will be more equally distributed among race lines.

“We did this to close the achievement gap and create an environment that ensures every students’ success,” he said. “Next year the start times will be more racially balanced.”

In a School Bell Times Equity Impact Report put together by senior equity manager Steven Chen, chief operations John Hanlon, and assistant superintendent of equity Becky Shuster, the district found that in the current start time system, 31 percent of black K – 6 students and 27 percent of Hispanic K – 6 students start school before 8 a.m., compared to 10 percent of white K – 6 students. With the new system, the percentage of black, white, Hispanic and Asian K – 6 students that start school before 8 a.m. are 44, 48, 49, and 39 percent, respectively.

But Matt Cregor, education director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said the equity of the new plan does little to blunt the impact of the early start times.

“BPS’ proposed change would move more than two-thirds of all black, Latino, Asian, and white elementary students into disfavored start times — before 8 and after 9 a.m.,” he told the Banner. “’Equity’ is simply no justification for a harmful policy change, even if it harms equally.”

Scheduling practices and their effects on race were absent from previous equity reports, said Chang.

BPS equity analysis.

Another factor that influenced the new policy was the school district’s transportation system.

“Our transportation system currently costs us more than $110 million a year,” said Chang.

“And the School Committee has asked us — and rightfully so — to find ways to be more efficient with transportation so we can reinvest in schools,” he said.

According to the BPS website’s start times FAQ page, eliminating start times before 7:30 would cost as much as $7 million — a .6 percent bump in the district’s $1.08 billion budget.

“If we added this constraint [no schools starting before 7:30 a.m.] many more elementary school students would continue to dismiss after 4 p.m. and many high schools would begin before 8 a.m. — factors that we are trying to avoid in the new policy,” the website reads. “This constraint would also lead to about $5-7 million more in costs than the model for start times which was chosen for the district, thereby reducing significantly the potential for reinvesting in schools.”

The school committee further defended the policy with research that shows the new school times are more aligned with biological needs.

In order to implement later start times for high school students, which various studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Center for Disease Control, and Scientific American suggests are more beneficial for development and learning, the school committee decided to push up start times for elementary students to accommodate the narrow window of start times and transportation constraints.

The committee cites a report by Hanover Research that suggests that elementary-aged students have the same degree of focus at 7:00 a.m. as adolescents do at 8:00 a.m.

“There is research that shows that elementary students are not as affected by earlier start times than secondary students,” said Chang.

“Although, I want to acknowledge that this research is less extensive than research on adolescents,” he said as the crowd hissed and booed.

Parents hold signs at the Bolling Building.

At-large City Councilor Anissa Essaibi George said that she had supported and advocated for later start times for high school students and younger students leaving school before dark, “but not at lunchtime.”

“This does not translate into good action,” she said. “It allows transportation constraints to dictate policy.”

Essaibi George and councilors Ayanna Pressley, Matt O’Malley, Tito Jackson and Michelle Wu stated their opposition to the plan in a letter to the School Committee.

Mayor Martin Walsh stood behind the school department’s proposed changes during a Wednesday morning press conference.

“Start times and grade configurations are two things that will make a tremendous positive impact in our district,” he said, quoted in the Boston Globe.

During public comments however, parents argued that the earlier start time and earlier dismissal would greatly affect not only their children but the whole family.

A mother of BPS students, Gisel Pena told the committee that the new policy would incur additional after-school costs, and decrease quality family time together.

“There will barely be anytime together as a family since have to go to bed so early to get enough sleep and wake up at 6 a.m.,” she said. “The superintendent is out of touch with what families need.”

Antonia Rodriguez, a mother of six BPS kids, also said that she would not be able to afford after-school care if her children have to leave school by 1:15 p.m. and she does not leave work until the 5 or 6 p.m.

Audrey Martinez, a research educator and parent, said that she doesn’t want to leave her kindergarten student in school and after-school care for almost 11 hours of the day.

With such an early start time, and a child’s need to sleep at least 10 to 12 hours, it gives significantly less time to do homework in the evening, said Martinez.

School Committee member Jeri Robinson said, “It’s not possible that 100 percent of people will be happy. There will be people who will have to make adjustments.”

“This policy is sound, I would vote for it again,” said School Committee member Miren Uriarte among sounds of protest from the crowd. “This is about equity.”

School Committee member Michael Loconto said, “The district will be better because of it.”

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