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Debate Continues About Early Elementary School Start Times

Many parents question the new start times.

wikimedia commons
Source: wikimedia commons

On December 6, 2017, Boston Public Schools (BPS) superintendent Tommy Chang announced new bell times for the 2018-19 school year. School authorities had been studying the matter for some time and the message to parents, teachers, and students was definitive – the new start times were said to be line with research about start times that maximize learning. The goal was to have a majority of secondary students start after 8:00 am and to have a majority of elementary students dismissed by 4:00 pm. Moreover, the plan was said to reduce the total transportation costs and the savings would be reinvested in educational programs. Like other school districts that have considered later start times, BPS had studied the matter extensively over a long period. They solicited input from constituents in 17 community meetings and through a website that received over 10,000 views and 2,000 comments. MIT researchers were consulted to develop an optimal schedule for bus routes.

When times for individual schools were released, middle and high school start times were generally after 8:00 am, with a few starting as late as 9:30 am. But for elementary schools, there was much greater variability, with a few starting at 9:00 or 9:30 am, and many others starting at 7:15 or 7:30. It appears that optimal bus routes must have been the deciding factor when a particular school started since the distribution of start times are not consistent with grade.

In some cases, parents of elementary children were facing a two hour earlier start time than 2017-18 and many were quite unhappy with that prospect. Some felt that while earlier parent feedback had indicated considerable approval for later start times, they were blindsided by how early some elementary schools would start. Besides their concerns about having to get children up much earlier to get ready for school, many were very troubled by the earlier dismissal times – some as early as 1:15 pm. Some working parents argued that they would face additional daycare costs that would pose a financial and logistic burden.

BPS relied heavily on recommendations from professional groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics who recommended that no middle or high school start before 8:30 am. It is also noteworthy that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s recommended sleep durations are 8-10 hours for teenagers (although few get that much) and 9-12 hours for children 6 to 12 years old. For an elementary student to get that much sleep and get up at 6:00 am or earlier to get to school by 7:15 am they would have to go to sleep between 6:00 pm and 9:00 pm.

Start School Later has assembled an impressive database of publications that provide the justification for later school start times, and BPS relied on those data. But as I have noted before, while substantial evidence supports having middle and high schools start later, there has been very little research to see if elementary school children are affected one way or another by having very early starts. And of the few studies that have looked at elementary students, there are some that suggest earlier start times are associated with poorer educational and behavioral outcomes.

At the urging of some parents, several members of the Boston City Council wrote a letter to BPS on December 14 asking them to reconsider. The Boston area NAACP along with other civil rights organizations wrote a letter stating that the new times would unfairly harm students of color even though BPS had conducted an equity analysis and argued the opposite – that students would not be differently affected.

BPS superintendent Chang wrote a letter to parents on December 15 saying that more feedback would be sought in 10 additional open meetings between December 18 and 21 and that a final decision would be reached in a January 10, 2018 meeting.

It will be very interesting to see how the process unfolds and the ultimate decision is made.