Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/ file 2013
In a move that will scramble the daily schedules of families across the city, nearly 85 percent of Boston’s 125 schools will have new start times next fall, school officials announced Thursday night.
The changes aim to let more high school students sleep in and more elementary school students get out before sunset. Boston now joins a small but growing number of school systems in Massachusetts and across the nation that have pushed high school start times later in an effort to get students to school well rested and alert. The hope is that students will perform better academically.
To that end, some 94 percent of students in grades 7 through 12 will begin classes after 8 a.m. next fall, up from 26 percent this year. Among them: students at Boston Latin Academy in the Grove Hall area near the Dorchester-Roxbury line, which will go from having one of the earliest start times, 7:20 a.m., to one of the latest, 8:30 a.m.
Michael Maguire, a teacher at Boston Latin Academy who was among a group there pushing for a later start, cheered the news.
“Honestly, kids are asleep at 7:30 in the morning, heads down or fuzzy-headed,” he said in an interview. “I’m optimistic the new time will be better. It’s not a cure-all, but it will help.”
But, he added, “Coaches and athletes at BLA are concerned about after-school sports and want the school department to address these concerns as soon as possible.”
Pushing dismissal closer to 3 p.m. could leave some students without enough time to work jobs at retail stores that close in the early evening, other teachers have said.
The change in bell times also aims to appease parents who have had growing concerns about schools dismissing later in the afternoon, an issue that has emerged over the last three years as the school system added 40 more minutes of daily instruction at dozens of elementary, middle, and K-8 schools.
Just 15 percent of students in the lower grades will be dismissed after 4 p.m. next fall, down from 33 percent this year.
Yet the changes are now causing some schools to grapple with the very problems the school department said it was trying to address with the new operating hours. For instance, the Russell Elementary School in Dorchester is moving from an 8:30 a.m. start to a 9:30 start, meaning its students will now get out at the unpopular hour of 4:10 p.m.
That’s too late, in the eyes of some parents.
Dasan Harrington, a parent, said the change surprised him and he doesn’t know what to make of it.
“It might be better for my work schedule, but at the same time my kids are early birds,” he said. “Getting them to school earlier is probably better. I don’t get the logic behind changing it.”
The school department e-mailed parents about the changes around 6 p.m., but word started circulating among some schools in the afternoon.
By late Thursday afternoon, a backlash was brewing on social media, especially among parents of younger children.
“Incredible lack of transparency by School Committee to vote on changes w/o knowing impact on each school,” tweeted a parent at Roxbury’s Hernandez K-8 School, which is shifting from 8:30 a.m. to 7:15 a.m.
The announcement came one day after the School Committee unanimously approved a new policy on school operating hours that calls for more high schools to start after 8 a.m. and more elementary schools to end their days before 4 p.m.
Boston schools, which serve 56,000 students, currently start around 7:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., and 9:30 a.m. The start times are staggered in an effort to keep down transportation costs, enabling buses to do multiple runs in the mornings and afternoons.
School officials anticipated that not everyone would be happy with the changes. Surveys conducted by the school system in recent months found most of the more than 6,000 parents who responded preferred start times between 8 and 8:30 a.m., while others liked earlier or later times. Opinions often varied at individual schools.
“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,” said Superintendent Tommy Chang in a statement.
An increasing body of research has documented a shift in the biology of children when they become teenagers that delays their sleep and wake-up cycles by about two hours, pushing off their natural bedtime to 11 p.m. or later.
That, in turn, means that if they need to get to school at the crack of dawn, they will routinely get only five or six hours of sleep.
The lack of adequate shut-eye can have detrimental effects on the health and academic performance of teenagers, increasing their risks for early morning car crashes, suicidal tendencies, depression, binge drinking, drug overdoses, and bad grades, research has shown. Several studies in recent years have recommended starting high school at 8:30 a.m. or later, saying students should get between 8½ and 9½ hours of sleep per night — not the six hours that is often the case.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high school should start at 8:30 a.m. or later.
Several Massachusetts high schools that have pushed back start times have seen improvement in student performance. Hanover High School, which moved its start time back a half-hour to 7:55 a.m. last school year, experienced a 22 percent decrease in tardiness and, in its first-period classes, a 32 percent decrease in D’s and F’s and a 10 percent increase in A’s, according to a School Committee presentation in January.
Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George said she was encouraged by the move.
“This is exactly the kind of common-sense change that will have a huge positive impact on families and children across the City of Boston,” she said in a statement.
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